When Cassius Clay fought Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964 I was on our living room floor in Minneapolis, listening to the radio broadcast. I knew about Liston. He had twice knocked out Floyd Patterson in the first round, and my dad had taken me downtown to watch both fights on a movie screen at the State Theater.
Sports Illustrated wrote a story about the various traits – this man’s speed, this man’s strength and this man’s savvy – a fighter would have to possess to beat the great Liston.
Clay, a former Olympic light-heavyweight champion, was a 9-1 underdog. And he was so daring, so innovative and so, so fast, that Liston quit in his corner. Clay, who would soon become Muhammad Ali, was the winner and new champion. I tried to imagine how he fought, and I failed.
The fight was 52 years ago. Ali died Friday, at age 74. He was always my favorite athlete, and he always will be.
What connects us to the people who play the sports we like? What makes one more athlete more special than the others? What makes us latch on and say, “This one is mine”?
With Ali, it was movement. No big man had traversed a ring the way he did, and I can comfortably say no big man ever will. No big man moved his hands as quickly as Ali moved his. Remember how he jerked his head back to avoid a punch? You’re not supposed to do that. Boxing coaches probably were infuriated. Ali’s opponents were, too.
On Nov. 14, 1966, Ali fought a tough craftsman named Cleveland Williams. Had Cleveland changed his name to a city that enjoyed more athletic success, it wouldn’t have mattered. Ali was never better than he was against Williams.
Bigger than boxing
Ali was so much bigger than boxing. He was funny and brash, an entertainer in satin shorts. He was a poet. His poems might have been silly. But they were funny. Ali was big and, as he constantly said, pretty, and no matter whom he fought it was an event. More than any athlete I’ve encountered, he connected sports to the real world.
To some, he’ll always be the antihero because he refused to fight in Vietnam, in a war that tore out country apart. His combat, of course, almost certainly would have been limited to exhibitions in the ring. A Black Muslim, he felt his religion forbade him from engaging in war, regardless of his role. In 1967, Ali was sentenced to the maximum penalty, five years in prison and $10,000. He appealed and, four years later, his conviction was overturned.
Ali was, however, out of boxing for 3 1/2 years. While he was speaking at colleges, his brilliant movement and speed were beginning to erode. He missed the peak years of his career, and when he returned, he was not the same fighter.
A visit to Charlotte
In 2003, Ali came to the Duke Mansion in Charlotte for Close to a Cure, a Parkinson’s fundraiser. I had long ago stopped being nervous around athletes, but when he stepped out of a white Suburban and walked 6 feet into the house, my stomach turned tight and my voice ceased to function. I watched him enter and thought, “Oh, do I hope he is who I think he is.”
As a result of Parkinson’s, Ali was shaking uncontrollably. Yet he wasn’t embarrassed, so why should we be? He would take his medicine and while the shaking didn’t stop, it was considerably muted.
Ali, 61, worked the room, joking with the kids and playing with the adults, snapping his fingers and plucking quarters from behind our ears. He picked up a black Magic Marker with his right hand and, holding it with his fist, repeatedly pounded it on a cloth napkin. The drawing was remarkable. It was the Thrilla in Manila, Ali’s third fight with Joe Frazier, which some consider the greatest boxing match of all time.
Felix Sabates, a Charlotte businessman and big Ali fan, bought the napkin for $10,000.
A moment with the champ
The media – there were only four of us, including the Observer’s Jeff Siner – was supposed to leave after an hour or so. But the organizers invited Jeff and me to stay. One of the organizers asked if I wanted Ali’s autograph. I thanked her. But I’ve always said I don’t believe in autographs for adults, and this proved it.
The woman returned and asked if I’d like to ask Ali a question. I stood in a corner and thought about the question and suddenly, less than a minute later, there he was. I’m 5-9 and he’s 6-3, and he bent over so I could speak into his ear. But what was I going to ask? I had to ask something. I wanted to ask something. And I needed it to be good.
“What’s the secret of life?” I asked.
Ali stood back up, thought for perhaps 20 seconds, and bent back down.
“Believe in God,” he said.
The children in the Duke Mansion had been collected in the same room so they were all together. Ali told them he could levitate. Somehow, he looked as if he did.
That day was one of the best of my career. Ali didn’t really levitate. But when I walked out, I did.