Throughout the 1970s, I grew up on Muhammad Ali. I enjoyed the entertainment value and banter with equally outspoken broadcaster Howard Cosell. He was also the biggest name in sports of his era, a list that included Pete Rose, Nolan Ryan and fellow Muslim convert Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
As news Friday night transitioned in a matter of hours from Ali’s admission to a Phoenix hospital to Ali’s condition deteriorating to the news of Ali’s death, thoughts turned towards Ali’s two biggest bouts that far exceeded 15 rounds.
On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the United States Army during the Vietnam War. Along with his Muslim faith, Ali cited that he did not want to battle opposition that had not personally done anything against him, unlike many of his neighbors back home growing up.
Ali paid the price. Until he won his case three and a half years later by a 8-0 decision by the United States Supreme Court, Ali lost his boxing license in all 50 states at the peak of his athletic career while declassified material later revealed his phone records were tapped, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and other figures by NSA surveillance.
To this day, a segment of the population vilifies Ali. In 2004 Ali received recognition during the Major League Baseball All-Star game in Houston. Days later Ali was harshly criticized by baseball legend Bob Feller, who was among the first in line at the enlistment office on December 8, 1941 – and soon followed by hundreds of other pro baseball players and other athletes and tens of thousands of others in other endeavors.
Feller’s stance remains strong past his own death, in the post 9/11 era the list of pro athletes to drop everything to serve America includes Pat Tillman and very few others.
The final 25 years of Ali’s life was a tragedy in itself, his voice was silenced from the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Boxing itself has others who make their social agendas known, Manny Pacquiao has ruffled feathers in the political arena.
The commentary of Ali had the potential to do wonders over the past 15 years as the United States continues to spar with factions of the Muslim faith.
Ali was the right athlete at the right time as the Civil Rights movement peaked. But Ali’s voice from a past generation should be remembered now as well. Whether you agreed with him or not, his courage should always be respected.