The Greatest is Gone: Muhammed Ali, R.I.P.

Posted: June 4th, 2016 | Filed under: Culture, Personalities, Ruminations | 3 Comments »

aliimagesThere’s a reason my homage is here at this blog, the one I use for cultural stuff, as opposed to my sports blog.

Because Muhammed Ali transcended the world of sports.

He was The Greatest.

Not the greatest boxer, not the greatest this or greatest that.

The Greatest.


And, if you are too short in the tooth, if you didn’t grow up in, or weren’t around in the 60s and 70s, and, if you only know Ali as an old, Parkinson’s riddled man, revered by your elders for something or another, and you’re looking at the headlines, and wondering what’s the big deal with all this posthumous adulation . . . if that’s where you are, I understand.

(It happened to me in 1977 when Bing Crosby, a singer you’ve probably never heard of, passed away, and there was a similar national reaction. Though I was 32, and really into music and culture, I just didn’t understand. What’s the big deal? Only afterward, did I realize Crosby in the first half of the 20th C was as big as Elvis, if not as important to music and culture. You’ve heard of Elvis, right? Different generations have their own heroes.)

Muhammed Ali, born Cassius Clay in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, was bigger than all that. Bigger than boxing. Bigger than sports. Bigger than television. Bigger than entertainment.

Bigger than . . . everything.

He was, for a time, for a long time, the Most Famous Person on the Planet.

And, arguably, the most important, transformative person of the 20th Century.

I’m not going to try to explain. There’s more than enough being written and videoed and podcasted about him for you to get the whys and wherefores.

 * * * * *

A couple of nuggetoids of information you might not read elsewhere.

Ali famously refused induction into the Army in the late 60s, during the Vietnam War. “I got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” he said, “none of them has ever called me ‘nigger.'”

More important, prior to his failure to step forward for induction, he had filed the proper papers for legitimate Conscientious Objector status. Which, if granted, would have allowed him to legally avoid military service.

His petition was denied by the decision makers at the Draft Board, Local Board 42, if memory serves. But three years later, that denial was overturned by the Supreme Court, which held he was a legit Conscientious Objector.

Reality was a hearing had been held at the beginning of that process here in Louisville. Noted local jurist Lawrence Grauman was the hearing officer. After hearing from Ali and many who vouched for Ali, including some of our burg’s leading citizens, who verified Ali’s commitment to his beliefs, Grauman held that the Conscientious Objector status should be granted.

That decision was ignored, Ali’s status denied . . . until the case got to the Supreme Court. Where the justices, went back to Grauman’s opinion, and reversed Ali’s conviction.

 * * * * *

Among the many famous personalities and stars of various endeavors who became friends with Ali was Sam Cooke. Who, in transferring the exuberance and passion of gospel into the pop music universe, was, in his own way, as important in that genre as Ali in changing the way guys boxed.

During research I was honored to perform for Peter Guralnick, the rock historian who wrote the definitive Cooke bio, I unearthed the origin of their fast and lasting friendship.

Ali was the King of Our Town, if not yet the World, when he returned from the ’60 Rome Olympics, with the Light Heavyweight Gold Medal around his neck.

Cooke was one of the stars appearing at a Rock & Roll Revue, soon after Ali’s return. Because of his sudden fame, Ali was allowed to jump on stage, and joined The Olympics, when they sang their hit of the time, “Western Movies.” Hanging backstage with the stars, Ali and Cooke struck up a relationship that became true.

 * * * * *

There was a time, in the 80s I guess, when I attended a wedding on a hot summer’s afternoon in the Seelbach.

A local gal married a guy who was a second banana on a popular TV series.

So the festivities were covered by “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous.” TV cameras and mics everywhere. Very strange. Very staged.

As I left the bombast of that event, I walked outside, and there’s a line of about 10 people in the heat, quietly gathered behind the bed of a pick up truck. Sitting on the truck was Muhammed Ali, the most famous person in the world, signing copies of the Koran.

That vision, the juxtaposition of real fame and worth vs. the faux, remains clear to this day.

 * * * * *

I’m not sure exactly when the blows to Ali’s head started to take their toll. Nobody does.

But, I remember the morning after his loss in 1980 to Larry Holmes, the only time Ali, then way past his prime, was knocked out.

Holmes was interviewed by some effusive fellow, who asked how exciting it must be to beat The Greatest, etc?

To his credit, a humble Holmes intoned (a paraphrase), “This is not a day to celebrate. This is a day to be sad.” Or, something to that effect, going on to extol the virtues of Ali, whom he had defeated the evening before, and reflect upon the how Ali’s talents in the ring had diminished, and how Ali should be the one honored.

 * * * * *

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

 * * * * *

Muhammed Ali was a Colossus.

He strode the globe, the Man Most Full.

— c d kaplan

3 Comments on “The Greatest is Gone: Muhammed Ali, R.I.P.”

  1. 1 Paul Schlesinger said at 9:06 am on June 4th, 2016:

    Nicely done!

  2. 2 Papa Becherer said at 10:41 am on June 4th, 2016:

    Good one, Chuckles…

  3. 3 Vernon Blair said at 11:09 am on June 4th, 2016:

    Good article, Chuck

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