I don’t pretend to have known Muhammad Ali, even though I am like many folks of my vintage who like to think we knew him.
Ali arrived in my consciousness early in the 1960s, when he began shooting off at the mouth (a la flamboyant grappler Gorgeous George) and wrested the world heavyweight boxing championship from the dreaded, mob-linked thug Sonny Liston. He was called Cassius Clay then, and I recall listening to the first of his two fights with Liston on the radio.
The grownup men had gathered in our kitchen, the non-interested women sat in the living room.
“Come on, Clay!” I yelped with the enthusiasm of any 13-year-old sprig. “Kick the shit out of him!”
This was the one and only time in my youth that I used profanity in the presence of grownups and, although there was mild tittering at the kitchen table, I was scolded, yet spared the harrowing punishment of my mother shoving a bar of soap in my mouth and giving it a good scrubbing. Perhaps it helped that Clay did, in fact, kick the “shit” out of Liston.
Whatever, little could I have imagined that, not quite 18 years after that Feb. 25, 1964, incident I would meet the great man.
Page was moving briskly to and fro in a makeshift ring, bobbing and weaving and flicking left jabs and right crosses into the thick air of anticipation that accompanied all big bouts back when boxing still was big. In a few days, the product of Louisville, Ky., would be throwing down against Scott Ledoux, a Minnesota miner’s son and a plodding palooka best known for his mental toughness and inadvertently knocking the toupee from the head of bombastic broadcaster Howard Cosell. This was Page’s final prep as part of the undercard to the Drama in Bahama and its main event, Muhammad Ali vs. Trevor Berbick.
As I watched Page punch at shadows while all manner of misfits consorted with seedy, nefarious-looking leeches on the periphery, I felt a presence to my left flank. It was heavy. Imposing. I turned, ever so slightly. The man standing beside me was dressed in black. Shoes. Trousers. Untucked shirt hanging over a substantial girth. All black. I looked up. Way up.
Muhammad Ali was listed at 6-feet-3 and he would weigh in at 236 and change for his bout with Berbick, but he seemed so much taller. His crop of short, curly hair surely seemed at least seven feet above the soles of his shoes.
“Hi Muhammad,” I said. “How’s it going today?”
“The kid,” he said, nodding in Page’s direction, “thinks he’s as pretty as me. But he ain’t. Ain’t nobody as pretty as me.”
When I met Ali during the run-up to his Dec. 11, 1981, bout with Berbick, he wasn’t pretty anymore. His belly was layered with flab and he shuffled along. Parkinson’s syndrome had begun its assault, although we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought he was punch drunk, which is why no athletic commission in the United States was willing to grant him a license to fight again. He was forced to take his act to Nassau, Bahamas, where he and Berbick pitched duel on a parched patch of earth known as the Queen Elizabeth Sports Centre.
The entire production was patchwork. The ring was set up on a pasture disguised as a sandlot baseball infield, at second base. Nobody thought to bring an official timer, so a stopwatch was used. Nobody thought to bring a ringside bell, so a cowbell was located. There were only two sets of gloves for a dozen fighters. All but Ali, Berbick and Thomas Hearns were required to squeeze together in one tiny, cramped changing room, like so many cattle in a pen.
Only a month shy of his 40th birthday, by the time Berbick was done boxing his ears, Ali looked to be on the far side of his 60th birthday. It was to be the last of his 61 professional fist-fights, the final two of them humbling losses at the fists of Larry Holmes and Berbick.
All considered, it was an inglorious way for the most glorious of gladiators to bid farewell to a sport that for the best part of two decades had ridden the coattails of his boxing skills, charm, charisma and social awareness.
Still, I often cite covering that event for the Toronto Sun as the signature assignment of my 30 years in jock journalism.
In the few hours since his death on Friday, there has been an outpouring of admiration and affection for Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (his “slave name,” as he called it). Many have said he was larger than life, but we know that isn’t so. No one is larger than life. But Ali’s life was larger than most. From the moment he whupped Liston, his life was large.
His joining the Nation of Islam, changing his name and refusing induction into the U.S. military amplified it.
It has also been submitted that Ali was the first athlete whose impact transcended sports. Again, no. Jack Roosevelt Robinson beat him to that punch when, in 1947, he became the first black man to perform in a Major League Baseball game. The difference was that Robinson was advised to zip his lips. To play the part of the humble worker. Ali, on the other hand, never shut up.
Much of what the three-time heavyweight champion had to say was silly, spoofish stuff. He would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” He’d recite hokey poems predicting the outcome of his fights, and the round in which his foe would fall. That part of his shtick entertained and amused the masses. He was a man-child, walking through life with a wink and a nod.
Yet for every chuckle there was a harsh criticism. And flat-out hatred.
Many, like myself, saw him as a hero for saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” and refusing to be shipped off to a senseless battle on the other side of the world. But his anti-Vietnam War stance rankled and raised the ire of millions of Americans. Even the aforementioned Jackie Robinson turned on him.
Ali didn’t care, though. He was willing to forfeit his lucrative boxing career and, indeed, go to jail, but he was not willing to compromise his beliefs and go to Vietnam.
Each of us is a song of life, and I’ll always remember Muhammad Ali as a song of joy and freedom.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he once told the braying jackals who would condemn him. “I’m free to be what I want.”
Words to live by.
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 45 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.