Muhammad Ali: The Greatest   In the late 1980s, I was living in Las Vegas. Vegas, along with New York City and Los Angeles, is one of three places where it is not uncommon to see a celebrity just walking around. While I had lived there I had witnessed Jerry Lewis visit his supposed mistress, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise film a scene for an upcoming film called Rain Man, and Dean Martin sitting at a blackjack table. I had watched Andrew “Dice” Clay, Redd Foxx, and Sam Kinison in concert, and found Foxx the crudest by far.   Still, it was surprising one morning after polishing off a breakfast of steak and eggs for $3.99, as I stood on a street corner on the strip, waiting for the light to change so I walk to the parking structure to get my car, I found myself standing next to Muhammad Ali. He was all by himself. No bodyguards. No handlers or hangers-on. It was just the Champ. I did a double take.   At that moment in time, Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most recognizable human being on the planet. Long before Michael Jordan, you could go into a hut in Africa, climb the Himalayas, or travel deep into the Amazon, everybody you met would recognize Muhammad Ali. There was no Internet, there might not be a television set for a thousand miles, and, yet, children, who had no reason to know who he was, knew who he was. Today, 99.9 percent of the population cannot name the heavyweight titleholder. Then, even though he had not fought for almost a decade, everybody still knew Ali. Little boys that could barely speak English could shadow box as they proclaimed that they could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”   It is the kind of fame that is almost unfathomable. There was nowhere he could go where he could disappear in the crowd. Nowhere he could go and just be. He was The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip, or just simply Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manila. The Fight of the Century. That kind of fame has to be a burden at times.   And there he was, enjoying his freedom. Now, I was much to shy to have bothered him and believe celebrities, when not in the limelight, should be allowed to enjoy their private time to unwind. Plus, I had used what little courage I possessed to introduce myself to one of my heroes “Dr. Gonzo” Hunter S. Thompson.  Still a part of me wishes I had a pen and a piece of paper to get his autograph.   I looked at him, he looked at me, and then he raised his index finger to his lips, winking the way only Muhammad Ali can, and simply walked away until he vanished, gone, enjoying his freedom. The light changed twice as I tried to comprehend whom I had just seen.  I had to question if I had really seen Ali.   If it was not for a red-and-white Schwinn bicycle no one would have known who Muhammad Ali was. He might not have become the greatest boxer and showman of all time if it had not been for that bike. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, named after The Lion of White Hall, Cassius Marcellus Clay, an abolitionist and cousin of famed politician Henry Clay.   Like almost every African-American in the south, he grew up in poverty, but had his beloved Schwinn that he rode everywhere. One fall evening in 1954 some unknown culprit decided to steal it. The twelve-year-old Cassius reported the theft to a police officer named Joe E. Martin and with great vigor vowed that if he caught the individual he was going to “whup” him within an inch of his life. Officer Martin, who spent his free time teaching boxing at the racially integrated Columbia Gymnasium, knew the youngster would be biting off more than he could chew if he somehow found his bicycle and the criminal that took it, suggested that the pre-teen Cassius maybe took a boxing lesson or two before taking the law into his untrained hands.   Six weeks later, after being trained by Martin, the twelve-year-old stepped into the ring for his first amateur fight, the first of many victories. Clay would go on to win 100 amateur bouts, six state Golden Gloves championships, two national Golden Gloves championships, and a Light Heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.   If Martin had taken the day off, not seen the youngster’s potential, or had another officer had taken the report, the future Muhammad Ali might never have laced up a pair of gloves and climbed into the squared circle.     In the early 1960s, Clay was seen by most boxing fans, who while undefeated, 19-0, as just a loudmouthed kid who stood no chance against Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, an ex-convict and mammoth of a man that struck fear in the hearts of everyone that saw him. Liston was truly the baddest man on the planet! A 7-1 underdog, the youngster’s speed and mobility allowed him to ellude the clearly angry Liston, who had allowed the Louisville native’s rhetoric to get under his skin. By the 7 th  round, a clearly exhausted Liston, claiming a shoulder injury, refused to leave his corner. At 22-years-old, Clay became the youngster fighter to defeat a heavyweight champion in the ring until Mike Tyson came around two decades later. If his mouth, in an era where black athletes were expected to remain silent, had not been enough to draw the ire of white America, his conversion to Islam shortly after the fight tipped the balance. He was no longer Cassius Clay. He was Cassius X and finally Muhammad Ali. Many newspapers and reporters refused to address him by his new name. After many believed Liston took a dive in the second fight, most of America hoped gentlemanly former Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson would silence the youngster. He didn’t.  Whether he liked it or not, Muhammad Ali came to represent the forces of anarchy and upheaval of the 1960. For many white southerners, he represented the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. He might have been the most hated athlete by white America the nation has ever produced. No one could stop him in the ring, but in a snap of fingers, his career appeared over.   We live in an era where millionaire athletes claim to be persecuted because someone makes fun of them, but they don’t miss a payday. Muhammad Ali lost millions and it looked like he had thrown away his entire career because of his religious faith. With the Vietnam War raging, even though he probably would have been used like Joe Louis was during World War II. Joe was a propaganda tool putting on boxing exhibitions. Ali refused to be drafted into the army. In turn, the title was taken from him and he spent three years of his prime in exile from the sport he loved. Stripped of his passport and denied a boxing license in every state in the union for forty-three months, Ali was reduced to starring in a Broadway show and recording a spoken word record album for money.             At almost twenty-nine years old, with many commentators feeling his career was effectively over, the courts allowed Muhammad Ali to climb back in the ring.  Less than a year later, he had the Heavyweight title around his waist again, defeating Joe Frazier after 15 torrid rounds.    Throughout the rest of the 70s, Muhammad Ali put on the greatest fights in boxing history against the likes of Ken Norton, Frazier again, George Foreman, and Leon Spinks. His bout against little known Chuck Wepner and his style and ring presence served as an inspiration for the Rocky movie franchise and the character of Apollo Creed. Somewhere along the way he went from being hated to being beloved.   One hundred and five amateur fights and sixty-one professional bouts did more damage than Ali could have imagined during his career. All those hits, especially his last fight against Larry Holmes, resulted in his being diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome three years after his retirement. Everything that made Muhammad Ali Muhammad Ali, his speed, the quickness, his sharpness and tongue became trapped inside an aging body that was once so beautiful and perfect.   It must have been frustrating for a man whose hands tore others apart to needing others to help him do simple things like tie a tie, a mouth, so magical the entire world hung on what he had to say, struggled with the easiest nouns and verbs, and the footwork that made him famous no longer there to even aid him in walking across the floor.   This week with a finger to the lips and a wink, he disappeared. Muhammad Ali is free again to be Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.  At least that is what I like to believe.
Muhammad Ali: The Greatest   In the late 1980s, I was living in Las Vegas. Vegas, along with New York City and Los Angeles, is one of three places where it is not uncommon to see a celebrity just walking around. While I had lived there I had witnessed Jerry Lewis visit his supposed mistress, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise film a scene for an upcoming film called Rain Man, and Dean Martin sitting at a blackjack table. I had watched Andrew “Dice” Clay, Redd Foxx, and Sam Kinison in concert, and found Foxx the crudest by far.   Still, it was surprising one morning after polishing off a breakfast of steak and eggs for $3.99, as I stood on a street corner on the strip, waiting for the light to change so I walk to the parking structure to get my car, I found myself standing next to Muhammad Ali. He was all by himself. No bodyguards. No handlers or hangers-on. It was just the Champ. I did a double take.   At that moment in time, Muhammad Ali was perhaps the most recognizable human being on the planet. Long before Michael Jordan, you could go into a hut in Africa, climb the Himalayas, or travel deep into the Amazon, everybody you met would recognize Muhammad Ali. There was no Internet, there might not be a television set for a thousand miles, and, yet, children, who had no reason to know who he was, knew who he was. Today, 99.9 percent of the population cannot name the heavyweight titleholder. Then, even though he had not fought for almost a decade, everybody still knew Ali. Little boys that could barely speak English could shadow box as they proclaimed that they could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”   It is the kind of fame that is almost unfathomable. There was nowhere he could go where he could disappear in the crowd. Nowhere he could go and just be. He was The Greatest, The Champ, The Louisville Lip, or just simply Ali. The Rumble in the Jungle. The Thrilla in Manila. The Fight of the Century. That kind of fame has to be a burden at times.   And there he was, enjoying his freedom. Now, I was much to shy to have bothered him and believe celebrities, when not in the limelight, should be allowed to enjoy their private time to unwind. Plus, I had used what little courage I possessed to introduce myself to one of my heroes “Dr. Gonzo” Hunter S. Thompson.  Still a part of me wishes I had a pen and a piece of paper to get his autograph.   I looked at him, he looked at me, and then he raised his index finger to his lips, winking the way only Muhammad Ali can, and simply walked away until he vanished, gone, enjoying his freedom. The light changed twice as I tried to comprehend whom I had just seen.  I had to question if I had really seen Ali.   If it was not for a red-and-white Schwinn bicycle no one would have known who Muhammad Ali was. He might not have become the greatest boxer and showman of all time if it had not been for that bike. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky, named after The Lion of White Hall, Cassius Marcellus Clay, an abolitionist and cousin of famed politician Henry Clay.   Like almost every African-American in the south, he grew up in poverty, but had his beloved Schwinn that he rode everywhere. One fall evening in 1954 some unknown culprit decided to steal it. The twelve-year-old Cassius reported the theft to a police officer named Joe E. Martin and with great vigor vowed that if he caught the individual he was going to “whup” him within an inch of his life. Officer Martin, who spent his free time teaching boxing at the racially integrated Columbia Gymnasium, knew the youngster would be biting off more than he could chew if he somehow found his bicycle and the criminal that took it, suggested that the pre- teen Cassius maybe took a boxing lesson or two before taking the law into his untrained hands.   Six weeks later, after being trained by Martin, the twelve-year-old stepped into the ring for his first amateur fight, the first of many victories. Clay would go on to win 100 amateur bouts, six state Golden Gloves championships, two national Golden Gloves championships, and a Light Heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.   If Martin had taken the day off, not seen the youngster’s potential, or had another officer had taken the report, the future Muhammad Ali might never have laced up a pair of gloves and climbed into the squared circle.     In the early 1960s, Clay was seen by most boxing fans, who while undefeated, 19-0, as just a loudmouthed kid who stood no chance against Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston, an ex-convict and mammoth of a man that struck fear in the hearts of everyone that saw him. Liston was truly the baddest man on the planet! A 7-1 underdog, the youngster’s speed and mobility allowed him to ellude the clearly angry Liston, who had allowed the Louisville native’s rhetoric to get under his skin. By the 7 th  round, a clearly exhausted Liston, claiming a shoulder injury, refused to leave his corner. At 22-years-old, Clay became the youngster fighter to defeat a heavyweight champion in the ring until Mike Tyson came around two decades later. If his mouth, in an era where black athletes were expected to remain silent, had not been enough to draw the ire of white America, his conversion to Islam shortly after the fight tipped the balance. He was no longer Cassius Clay. He was Cassius X and finally Muhammad Ali. Many newspapers and reporters refused to address him by his new name. After many believed Liston took a dive in the second fight, most of America hoped gentlemanly former Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson would silence the youngster. He didn’t.  Whether he liked it or not, Muhammad Ali came to represent the forces of anarchy and upheaval of the 1960. For many white southerners, he represented the front lines of the Civil Rights movement. He might have been the most hated athlete by white America the nation has ever produced. No one could stop him in the ring, but in a snap of fingers, his career appeared over.   We live in an era where millionaire athletes claim to be persecuted because someone makes fun of them, but they don’t miss a payday. Muhammad Ali lost millions and it looked like he had thrown away his entire career because of his religious faith. With the Vietnam War raging, even though he probably would have been used like Joe Louis was during World War II. Joe was a propaganda tool putting on boxing exhibitions. Ali refused to be drafted into the army. In turn, the title was taken from him and he spent three years of his prime in exile from the sport he loved. Stripped of his passport and denied a boxing license in every state in the union for forty- three months, Ali was reduced to starring in a Broadway show and recording a spoken word record album for money.             At almost twenty-nine years old, with many commentators feeling his career was effectively over, the courts allowed Muhammad Ali to climb back in the ring.  Less than a year later, he had the Heavyweight title around his waist again, defeating Joe Frazier after 15 torrid rounds.    Throughout the rest of the 70s, Muhammad Ali put on the greatest fights in boxing history against the likes of Ken Norton, Frazier again, George Foreman, and Leon Spinks. His bout against little known Chuck Wepner and his style and ring presence served as an inspiration for the Rocky movie franchise and the character of Apollo Creed. Somewhere along the way he went from being hated to being beloved.   One hundred and five amateur fights and sixty-one professional bouts did more damage than Ali could have imagined during his career. All those hits, especially his last fight against Larry Holmes, resulted in his being diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome three years after his retirement. Everything that made Muhammad Ali Muhammad Ali, his speed, the quickness, his sharpness and tongue became trapped inside an aging body that was once so beautiful and perfect.   It must have been frustrating for a man whose hands tore others apart to needing others to help him do simple things like tie a tie, a mouth, so magical the entire world hung on what he had to say, struggled with the easiest nouns and verbs, and the footwork that made him famous no longer there to even aid him in walking across the floor.   This week with a finger to the lips and a wink, he disappeared. Muhammad Ali is free again to be Muhammad Ali, The Greatest.  At least that is what I like to believe.