I remember Ali fighting. I think. It might have been in 1978, or 1981. And maybe it was with my dad in the living room. Or not. It’s all very fuzzy. I was all of just 10 years old, and boxing wasn’t exactly big around my “hood.” The only barbershop arguments I had growing up, was with my mom on how short to cut it.
So nah, I wasn’t arguing Ali vs. Liston, or Frazier, or Foreman. And the entire turbulent 60’s in the country were before my time.
So really, I don’t know shit about Ali, other than that he was an awesome fighter, and an even better interview. And beyond that, it’s complicated. And there have been a ton of books written, and many documentaries filmed about his life inside the ring and out. I know the basic shape of it all. I have a decent grasp on the controversies.
But it cracks me up to see guys like Steven A. Smith claim he remembers his dad crying at 3 years old to an Ali defeat. Yeah, sure ya did. I think my earliest sports memory was about 8 years old, and my earliest non-sports one at 6.
Similarly, the young punks at sites like Deadspin have churned out pieces grappling with what Ali “meant” to sports in America. Oh, really? Do tell, you 30-something guy who doesn’t even have a link to your professional bio on the site. Deadspin writers don’t even put a mugshot of themselves. I read this guy Daniel Roberts’ piece and was just curious: who is he? Well, who knows. He might be a great boxing writer. But I’m pretty sure Ali was before his time too.
I can’t pretend to add much of anything to Ali’s refusal to enter the draft. That was a crazy fucked up time in America, and I am sure you had to be there to understand how it felt. I can’t preach about how awful it was that Ali mocked Joe Frazier as a “gorilla” because you can’t apply today’s standards to back then. I won’t judge on his embrace of the Nation of Islam, because I can’t comprehend a time in which black people were getting firehosed and worse.
It’s best for me to just find the men who covered Ali personally, and read their stuff. Like Dave Kindred, a first-ballot sportswriter-Hall-of-Famer (if there was such a thing) who pens this great piece about the complications of Ali the man, Ali the boxer, Ali the societal force of nature.
It was also sports landscape that is incomprehensible to us today. Boxing was the top beat to cover for writers, along with baseball and horse racing. Ali fought in places like Manilla, Zaire, and Lewiston Maine. I mean, really!
It’s a shame he fought through increasingly obvious brain damage and that nobody in his circle could convince him to hang it up. Would it have allowed the champ to be more vibrant, and less a tragic shell of himself these last 30 years? Impossible to tell.
All I can say is that I have enjoyed reading and watching the coverage of Ali from smart people who covered him in person. Everyone else under the age of 50 needs to just shut up and sit down. We don’t know, and we can never know.