If ever a man was made for his times, it was Muhammad Ali. He slapped America with a dead fish in the sixties, gloriously and forever changing the way the nation approached sports, entertainment, celebrity—and, most especially, race.
We called him Cassius Clay for much longer than was decent, me and my all-white, blue-collar crowd, and certainly longer than was needed to make our point. Cops, construction workers, a young veteran or two—we knew that right was right and wrong was wrong, that everything had its rightful place in the world, and that this brash young boxer from Louisville was flipping our social order on its head.
As of course he was. It never occurred to us that maybe the order needed flipping—and that it was going to be flipped, sooner or later. What a mercy it was that the fellow doing the job was so convincingly correct, but also so outrageously entertaining. Things could have been much uglier.
Which doesn’t mean that Muhammad Ali was always right. He wasn’t—particularly about Vietnam. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said famously when it came time for him to be drafted. There was nothing singular about that view; most young men headed for the infantry aren’t profound strategic thinkers and, anyway, scores of thousands of others his age said they felt exactly the same way.
What distinguished Ali from virtually all of the others was the sincerity of his convictions and the price he was willing to pay to defend them. Take it from someone who was there, who lived the protest era and who came to cover it as a young journalist: most draft objectors were entirely self-interested fellows with few core beliefs and very little to lose. If you doubt it, consider that when the draft ended in January 1973, so did the American protest movement. The mass murders following the fall of Saigon, the exodus of the Vietnamese Boat People, and the Cambodian genocide proceeded without much objection here. Life went on for most young Americans.
Ali was different. His refusal to submit to the draft came at staggering personal cost. Stripped of his heavyweight title in April 1967 and subsequently convicted of draft evasion, he didn’t fight again for 42 months, which is a very long time for an athlete at the peak of his career. The hiatus cost him millions in purses and endorsements and left lingering forever the question of just how great the Greatest might have become.
But never again would there be any doubt about the courage and character of Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay, of Louisville, Kentucky—a great American and a true hero. RIP, champ.
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