A Tale of Two Heroes: A Muhammad Ali Tribute

Growing up, my older brother and I would shadow box. Muhammad Ali was our childhood hero, so we both acted as if we were him as we jabbed and shuffled our way through our imaginary bouts.


The fights were never fair. My brother was larger than life, literally and figuratively. He was six feet tall in sixth grade, a man among boys. He dominated in sports, and school was easy for him. He hired an ACLU lawyer to sue his high school. He graduated at 16 and went to Yale. There, he was on the frontlines of the Yale workers strike and spoke at the UN as one of the leaders of the collegiate anti-apartheid movement. After graduation, he took depositions in what was, at the time, the largest libel case in the history of the United Stateseven though he didn’t have a law degree.

Soon after, he died instantly when his car hit a moose and then a semi on a lonely road in Newfoundland. My brother was my idol and I was honored to grow up in his shadow.

Last Friday, June 3, I was in a funk all day. I had no idea whyand then I heard the news of Ali’s passing. I wept, and was up most of the night. My eyes eventually closed, but not until I came to a stunning realization, a connection between the two heroes of my life.

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(image: Alex Demyanenko/Capital & Main)

Muhammad Ali was a bad man. You could say he invented swagger before the word existed. Born Cassius Clay, Ali burst onto the world stage, winning the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. Rarely had anybody seen an athlete with such a disarming combination of power and grace. And certainly no one had witnessed one with his brash verbosity, which quickly either captivated or infuriated fans. At a time when forces in society were colliding in a conflagration of race and religion and rebellion, Ali’s words fueled the fires of the discontented and disenfranchised, and inflamed the fury of those who preferred maintaining the status quo.

To those slaves of convention, Ali was a bad man, an enemy of the state who didn’t know his rightful place in society. They wanted him to be like the Jackie Robinsons and Bill Russells of the day, supreme athletes of color who blazed trails, but did so between the lines or, in Ali’s case, between the ropes. But Ali had bigger battles on his mind, something more than just games.

It was this conviction and courage that made him a bad man to his people, but in a different sense. “Bad” was not a pejorative term on the streets. A glorious gladiator who actually stood for something bigger than his sport, he helped galvanize a people to do the same in their daily lives, and because of it they loved him. Ali would tell the world he would do the impossible and then do it. And because of it, the disenfranchised around the world thought they could too.

He not only taunted and vanquished his opponents, he messed with the accepted, toyed with the given and knocked convention on its ass. It was no mistake that when he shocked the world by defeating the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston for his first world championship, he told the reporter in the ring, “I’m a bad man!”

Ali was a bad man because he said and did what others never said even if they wanted to. His personal journey to find firm spiritual footing led him to become a member of the Nation of Islam, which in turn led him to change his name. And in his fight with Ernie Terrell, an opponent who kept calling him “Cassius Clay” in the lead-up to the fight, the personal and the political collided. As Ali pummeled Terrell in the ring, he yelled out repeatedly to his opponent, “What’s my name!?” The symbolism was not lost.

For mainstream America, the poetic braggadocio Ali had spewed out up to then had always seemed to fall within the safe confines of vaudeville’s tradition of clowns of color. But when Ali started to assert his identity, and then unleashed his intellect and ideology outside the ropes, a huge cross-section of Americans reacted with condemnation and disapproval. Ali’s boasting had always rankled some, but now, full of political and social content, it made him an “uppity” black man not staying in his lane, or in this case, the ring. His words were a gut punch to the establishment. He was saying he was black and proud before James Brown âŽ¯ and he definitely said it loud. He became the first huge pop culture figure to address racism, in direct terms, especially when he was drafted for military service in 1967 and refused to enlist.

“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over,” he said, in words that even now seem radical. “If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”

But lose he did. Ultimately Ali was stripped of his title and his vocation in his prime. He forfeited millions of dollars in potential earnings, but perhaps costlier was his loss of time. Yet in those three-plus years, he did not lose his dignity. And what many found was a role model.

As Bryant Gumbel said, “One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear. And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

As he had in every chapter of his life, Ali overcame the obstacles and emerged victorious. In the end, he won back his belt, not once, but twice, and his conviction for refusing military service was overturned by the Supreme Court in an 8-0 vote, a satisfying yet Pyrrhic legal knockout. When he returned, his “Fight of the Century” with Joe Frazier divided a nation. Before the Donald and Hillary there was Ali and Frazier, with cities, communities and families split in their allegiances.

Frazier knocked Ali down, but as always not only did Ali get up, he finished the fight, albeit suffering his first loss in the ring. But in his subsequent comeback, he found something else ⎯ the sort of remarkable spirit and will that made him seem less flesh and blood and more like a figure rising off the pages of a Marvel comic. He was Superman, Malcolm X and Harry Houdini all rolled into one.

Traveling to Africa, Ali rumbled in the jungle with George Foreman, employing one of the most ingenious strategies in the history of sports. After Ali rope-a-doped for seven rounds, the formerly ferocious Foreman fell. And Ali’s legend grew.

Later, in what many consider the greatest boxing match of all time, he and Frazier had their third meeting, the “Thrilla in Manila.” Worn and weary after having finally defeated his nemesis, Ali had reached his career apex. The later years in the ring were ones to be forgotten, but even without his gloves on he was now the most recognizable person in the world.

At home, he talked a suicidal man off a building’s ledge. He visited hospitals and jails full of forgotten Americans. He sparred with the Beatles and little kids, hobnobbed with popes and presidents.

Across the seas his influence was even greater. When he went to Bangladesh in 1978 near the end of his career, 2 million people greeted him in the streets. In 1990 he traveled to Iraq, and after negotiating with Saddam Hussein he brought home 15 American hostages who were being used as human shields. And in the denouement, really, of his public life, he lit the Olympic Torch in Atlanta in 1996, bringing the world to tears.

Ali’s story was a tall tale, a legend in the flesh. A movie come to life that had to be seen to believed. And even though we watched it unfold, it seemed unbelievable. He indeed shocked the world, as he often said he would, but more than that he made it a better place. He was the first global superstar before the internet made us global.

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In 1992, I was using Thomas Hauser’s biography Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times as a jumping-off point to write a feature story about Ali. Because of Ali’s condition, I interviewed Hauser at length, and also spoke to the boxer’s lifelong friend and photographer Howard Bingham. After finishing a week of interviews, I finally got to meet my hero, in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton. I was in awe… but also perplexed. He was shorter than me. I was so much bigger than the giant of my youth. And his ailment made him a shadow of his former magnificence.

He looked straight ahead, his body shaking, his eyes glassy, and it seemed like he didn’t hear a word I was saying. I rambled on about how much he meant to me and my late brother who had died nine years earlier. After I finished, he started to walk by me. Like an overgrown schoolkid, I followed him as he shuffled out to his waiting car. It really didn’t matter that he wasn’t hearing me; it meant so much to me to just be in his presence.

As the Champ was about to get into the car, he stopped. I stopped. His body shaking, he reached back behind himself and stuck his hand out into space. I realized it was to shake mine. And then I realized he had heard everything. I grabbed his hand gently and firmly, and held it for an extra beat. To him it was a tiny gesture in a lifetime of giving. To me it was a towering highlight of my life.

Thinking about that moment on the day Ali died brought back memories of two mop-topped brothers trying to float like butterflies while stinging air filled with our youthful imagination. One brother larger than life, the other just happy to be boxing in his shadow.

As I watched videos of Ali deep into the early hours of Saturday morning, I came across a meme that had Ali’s stunning young visage. On it was the date of his death. June 3, 2016. And then it struck me. My brother died on June 3. And now Ali was gone, 33 years later to the day. One was my personal hero, the other I shared with the world. In my mind, I dreamt they were shadow boxing each other somewhere, full of youth and vigor, passion and promise. Both very good, very bad men.

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