Muhammad Ali's timing was everything
A man made transcendent by a nation's trama
Originally published September 12, 2000
The books sit in front of you, an impressive pile. They are mostly serious books written by mostly serious people, all written about an athlete, about Muhammad Ali.
Real journalists, biographers and historians wrote some of them and hacks wrote others. Some are borderline scholarly, others borderline fiction. The two best, from one person's perspective, were written by Thomas Hauser ("Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times") and by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace ("Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America"). That's just an opinion, though. Everybody has one.
The books sit there. You search them for the moment, because that's what you do at times such as these. This Daily News special section is one of a series of endeavors over the last few years in which we have remembered greatness (as in the life of Jackie Robinson), and incandescence (as in our coverage of Michael Jordan's retirement), and also folly (as in our warts-and-all examination of the Philadelphia sports century). This time, we are here to commemorate and to honor the life of Ali, America's most transcendent athletic personality.
The anniversaries roll down upon us: 40 years since Ali won the boxing gold medal at the Rome Olympics, nearly 30 years since his return from the boxing wilderness following the controversies over his refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, 25 years since "The Thrilla in Manila," the last in the trilogy of fights against Joe Frazier.
Anniversaries, then. They are juxtaposed against the pictures of today, of Ali afflicted by Parkinson's syndrome - hands shaking, gait slowed. It is an activist retirement that he lives, with the face still recognized and sought-after worldwide, but it is different. The actual voice - of the kid boxing huckster and his singsong of poetry; of the de facto conscience of a nation during a turbulent, stressful time - is softer now and rarely heard in a public setting. Yet the symbolism, the aura and the magnetism surrounding the man, remains as strong as ever.
Back to the moment, though. It is what you look for but rarely find, the moment of quintessential definition in a person's life - as if there can be such a thing. You search for the cartoon light bulb suddenly illuminated over his head, knowing all along that it is just that - a cartoon artifice - but still looking all the same.
And so, was it when Ali was introduced to boxing as a kid in Louisville by a friendly police officer he met after his new bicycle was stolen? Maybe. Or was it when - denied seating at a restaurant while wearing his gold medal, denied because of his race - he threw the gold medal into the river? Maybe not; a lot of people believe that incident - the throwing of the medal into the river - to have been a biographer's invention.
So what was it? You think about it and you study it and the answer remains elusive. What made Ali - here's that word again - transcendent in a way that no American athlete ever has been? Because there have been greater athletes - Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain, to name three. Ali was great, but that wasn't it.
What explains the continuing worldwide appeal? What accounts for the pile of books? What?
Try this: that while Muhammad Ali was great, it was the times in which he lived and the actions of others that gave him the opportunity to be "The Greatest."
Here's the hypothesis: that Ali would be remembered today as a great boxing champion and a great boxing personality - but not as the symbol of a generation and an important public figure - if he had not been stripped of the heavyweight title following his refusal to be inducted into the military in 1967.
Because, when you really look at it, the defining moment wasn't even his conviction in 1967, a prosecution that took place despite an initial finding that Ali's beliefs against serving in the military were sincere. That clearly made his name a public lightning rod during Vietnam, as the nation split over the wisdom of fighting the war.
But it was a personal thing then: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America. It was about one man and one personal decision. And even if America would come to accept the courage of that stand in the years to come, it still was just about him then, about Ali.
He had spoken at "Black Muslim" functions for years. The first one, in fact - the first time he ever had been publicly associated with the group and well before his name change - was at a rally at the old Philadelphia Arena at 46th and Market streets. Again, though, that was not aimed at a wide American audience.
But then it happened. Just minutes, really, after Ali's refusal to be inducted was announced, the New York State Athletic Commission acted to strip him of his heavyweight title by suspending his license to box. It was a unanimous vote by the three-member commission, led by a former Republican congressman named Edwin Dooley.
Back then, the New York commission was like the Las Vegas commission is today. It was the leader. It was said that other commissions were ready to suspend Ali's license -- and the 30 commissions loosely confederated under what then was the WBA did act within hours of New York. But the truth is that if New York had allowed Ali to continue boxing, the rest of the commissions would have been the ones that were out of step. New York meant everything.
It seems absurd when you look back on it. Over the years, the New York commission - every commission - had licensed thieves and murderers and military deserters, yet it stripped Ali of his license before he'd even been charged with a crime. That charge would come later, as would a conviction, but it hadn't come yet. Even then, the appeals process would take years and the Supreme Court ultimately would vindicate Ali, albeit on a bit of a technicality.
Still, before all of that, Dooley apparently had four different press releases pre-prepared, depending upon what Ali did and what his draft board in Houston said. Dooley was prepared to laud Ali or to deny him the right to work - all based upon the ruling. Thus was this minor Republican functionary, acting as head of a three-man commission, prepared to make history.
In Hauser's book, there's a quote from the late Marvin Kohn, then Dooley's press secretary and a longtime member of the commission's staff. Kohn said:
"Dooley had heard that Muhammad would probably refuse induction. And the mood of the commission, which was the mood in many parts of the country, was if somebody was world heavyweight champion, why wouldn't he go in the Army like Joe Louis? There might have been some consideration of the possibility that the courts might eventually uphold Ali's position, but that was secondary to Dooley's thinking. So what the commission did was prepare four options. If Muhammad went into the service, if he stepped forward and crossed the line [at the induction ceremony, signaling his acceptance], then it would issue a statement complimenting him. Or if he took limited conscientious objector status, they'd so something else."
And when Dooley and the commission acted, everything changed.
Again, the hypothesis: If the New York commission hadn't acted, if Ali hadn't been stripped of his title, denied the ability to fight and forced into the wilderness for 31/2 years, we would not feel the respect, the warmth, that we feel for him today. He would be seen as a great champion and a principled man, but not a transcendent public figure; that word again.
Why? Because exile forced changes on the life of Ali. In order to eat - and to pay his legal bills - Ali began a tour of speaking appearances at college campuses. The first two speeches were here, at Temple University and Cheyney University. And if they didn't make him a rich man - the fee was said to be $1,500 apiece - those speeches did broaden Ali's appeal. Those speeches did sharpen his thinking and did energize his message. It was from that initial college tour that a nation of young people latched onto his cause. It was from that tour that all the rest followed - and as America turned against the Vietnam War, it was Ali who became the national symbol of someone willing to risk everything for his beliefs.
But what if there had been no risk? What if it hadn't been more then three years between when Ali fought Zora Folley and then Jerry Quarry, and seven years before he regained his title? What if Dooley and the New York commission never had acted?
This is the quote from Hauser's book that really jumped out. It is from Jim Jacobs, the late boxing guy most famous for his involvement with the early career of Mike Tyson and for his extensive collection of boxing films.
This is what Jacobs said:
"In some ways, the exile from boxing was the best thing that could have happened to Ali. In terms of his skills, it was a tragedy. But in terms of his earning power, it was a plus. If you go back to the Folley fight, which was Ali's last before he refused induction, he was no longer commanding large amounts of money. A substantial portion of the American public disliked him, and worse, they were getting tired of hearing what he was about.
"But the exile turned all that around. It showed people that Ali was sincere. It made him an underdog. He became a symbol to people who had never been interested in boxing before. And traveling around the country, speaking on college campuses, Ali was able to bring his message to tens of thousands of young men and women. In a way, it was like a presidential candidate sowing the seeds for future caucuses and primaries.
"And of course, people began to feel that, whether or not they liked Ali, he shouldn't have been forced out of boxing for his beliefs. It was so obvious, really. He couldn't be beaten in the ring, so larger forces were brought in to do the job. People understood that if Ali had been the 10th-ranked heavyweight instead of champion, he never would have been denied a license to fight.
"So the bottom line was, when he came back, even though he'd been out of boxing for 31/2 years and even though he was only fighting a 10-round non-title fight [against Quarry], Ali was paid more money for that fight than he'd ever been paid before."
An exemplary athletic life followed, and then an exemplary public life. Causes around the globe continue to crave his attention, many involving the children who still can be enchanted by his magic tricks. Books continue to be written.
But what if the times had not tested him? What would Muhammad Ali be then? Would he be Michael Jordan, universal yet only two-dimensional? You would think not, but no one knows.
The questions are unanswerable, because a man and his times are inseparable. And so, history never will ask what might have been had Muhammad Ali not been so severely tested by his times. Instead, with joy, history will continue to record his responses to those tests.