You didn’t have to be a fan of boxing to be touched by the magic of Muhammad Ali.
Almost everyone, it seems, has an Ali story. We’ve been reading them for two weeks now. But, late as this is with my biweekly deadlines, I couldn’t not write about him. Like JFK, The Beatles and other towering figures of his era, Ali changed what we thought and felt. He was a force in changing our world.
Boxing was more popular when he first came on the scene. Football was yet to become the juggernaut it is today, and though not as widely embraced as baseball, watching boxing on television was a common pastime. The Friday Night Fights of the 1950s were a television staple at a time when boxing’s brutality was all but overlooked. Fathers and sons bonded over the weekly matches. I watched them with my dad and can still sing the jingle used by the Gillette Razor Co., the show’s primary sponsor.
Then came the ’60s — and Ali. No one else, in boxing or anywhere else, was like Ali.
At first people didn’t know what to make of brash, young Cassius Clay, the Olympic champion who adopted the Muslim faith and changed his name, confidently predicted victory over the world’s best boxers — in poetry, no less — and went on to defeat them all.
“I used to root for someone to beat him just to shut him up,” a friend said. “But I grew to like him.”
Not everyone did. Some hated him for his refusal to serve in Vietnam, or, as he put it, to “put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville (his hometown) are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”
Ali was one of those who made us question the war and reject the rampant discrimination of the times. Like most agents of change, he was polarizing. People loved or hated him for his beliefs, for which he was stripped of his title, banned from boxing and sentenced to prison for draft evasion. Many condemned him as a traitor. History, however, was on his side. In time, a majority of Americans joined him in opposing the war, and the Supreme Court overturned his prison sentence.
A simple man in some ways, he reduced the complex, four-year legal proceedings to simplicity itself — no one had the right to make him be what he didn’t want to be. It was vintage Ali: no backing down even when it hurt. And it hurt a lot, costing him what could have been the best years of his boxing career.
In and out of the ring, he was an almost mythical figure, widely acknowledged to be the most famous person in the world. Wherever he went, people lined up to get autographs, shake his hand or just get a glimpse of him. When he came to Boise in 1985, the room where he spoke was so crowded with journalists, you’d have thought it was a presidential press conference. I was part of the throng and considered myself lucky just to holler a question at him from across the room.
My wife and son had a closer encounter. She was shopping at Vista Village when she saw a yellow limousine parked outside a magic shop. In the Boise of those days, there weren’t a lot of limousines, yellow or otherwise. Curious, she pushed the stroller and 2-year-old Mark into the shop to see who the celebrity was.
The first person she saw was Ali. When Ali saw Mark, she said, his eyes sparkled. Without asking permission — he was, after all, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world — he scooped him up and held him high above his head.
To everyone else in the shop, he was a star. To Mark, the big guy lifting him almost to the ceiling was just a stranger. He started to cry.
Unfazed, Ali put him down and directed everyone within earshot to “watch my feet.”
“We all watched really closely,” my wife said. “And I swear he levitated about three or four inches off the floor.”
Boisean Daryl Martin was one of Ali’s bodyguards during his Boise visit.
“I was working out at a club at the time, and they asked me and another guy there if we’d like to do that,” he said. “They didn’t have to ask twice.”
This was after Ali had retired from boxing and developed Parkinson’s disease. His step had slowed, his voice had softened, but one of the most fundamental things about him hadn’t changed.
“He’d sign autographs for hours, for anybody who asked,” Martin said. “It didn’t matter who they were or how long it took. I remember this one little kid about this high (5 or 6) who came up and asked for an autograph. It was busy and hectic, but Ali stopped everything just for this one kid. He gave him a hug and held him close, with the little boy’s head on his shoulder. I remember thinking, ‘That’s greatness. That’s true greatness.’ ”
Years later, I read in a biography of Ali that the “levitation” that had so impressed everyone at the Boise magic shop was something he did often, a sleight-of-foot. A magic trick.
But Ali’s real magic had nothing to do with tricks. It went much deeper. The man who transcended the sport of boxing with his pugilistic skills, braggadocio and larger-than-life personae had a larger-than-life connection with all of us. It made a poor kid from Louisville the most famous person on the planet. It brought thousands to pay their respects at his memorial service, moved presidents and other celebrities to pay tribute to a man once reviled as a draft dodger, made the entire world stop to mourn his passing.
No magic trick can do that. Ali’s magic was the real thing.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.