By Patrick Kehoe: Descending from the ring - having screamed in guest color-man on the closed circuit telecast Joe Louis' ear, "I must be the greatest!"- the new champ was almost drowned in a cascading applause of gleeful chanting. The king is dead, indeed. Long live the king was the tacit acknowledgement of the Miami Convention Hall, as the Louisville Lip waved to those 8,000 assembled. Yes, the kid had won! Already an Olympic champion yet just a budding, unorthodox professional, Cassius Clay at 22 took the heavyweight championship from the monster that was Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, to the astonishment of the entire sports world, the ringside press, Charles "Sonny" Liston and most of all himself.
Though in confounding what had to be probability in humiliating Liston to win the title, Clay was only fulfilling what he had predicted - mouthed as much to convince himself - for years. "I'm knockin' out all the bums," the magic was in his making a defining prophecy out of his marginal comedy, partisans out of those born to be his enemies. Americans loved to hate him, loved him beyond reason, but only the rest of the world simply adored him.
Those title-winning cheers ringing in accepted astonishment faded sooner than he could have imagined. Mostly because the speedster Clay would soon become the spiritual ferment in trust named Ali, and thus began his total alienation from the fedora wearing brill-creamers who disliked a dancing, jabbing, pretty boy heavyweight champion who confounded instead of brutalized.
The operative affront foisted by the new champ of the heavies was in his becoming a Muslim, in a then still mostly Christian and Jewish America. This brashly minted yet avowed follower of Islam, who wore Joe Louis and Rock Marciano's crown, was not ready to carry a gun and defend his country or at least entertain the troops with Bob Hope, rightly or wrongly. Thus ran the tirade for a myriad of whites, establishment bigots and just ordinary folk who though it was "un-American" in 1967, with the country at war. Even if America was a country warring, more than at war, and the "real enemy" was not the combatant in the jungles of Vietnam.
But none of that mattered at first; though eventually it became the pretext for Ali's first real test of endurance, as he outlasted the legal mandate to go to war against one's conscience because he was supposed to go. His stance - which only he knows the true intent of - became one of the defining acts of social resistance to "an unjust war of aggression" for a generation of American's who wanted true peace in their time, prosperity and equality for all, and ethics in national government. Or so they said with their placards, sit-ins, love-ins, happenings, hangouts and opt-outs, fleeing or fingering "the system" all the while defiling conventions, assumptions, "labels", parental expectation, societies morays and the entire Uncle Sam imperative as a World superpower.
And, in taking his stance to act out his religious directives to refuse induction in the army in front of his Kentucky draft board, Ali began the flight, which took him beyond the boxing ring, beyond all the glories of his championship reigns, beyond the boundaries of sport in general.
The man-child who came back from exile in 1970, after three-and-a-half years out of boxing, back to the title in melting the myth of George Foreman, was the man now set in his manner of loving the dangerous game of confrontation and vindication, astonishing us beyond what anyone could reasonably expect.
He faced down other heroes like the daunting Joe Frazier, embracing his fading youth, squeezing it of blood and vitality, until time began to make the final dictations on his career and health. For a decade now we see him mostly acting out the ceremony of his international fame and global significance. In his public silence, Ali forces us to realize how compelling memory is, how forceful an individual's total commitment to excellence - even a long transgressed one - can remain.
His perfect crime was his real transcending glory, as he tore at the soul of America unintentionally and profoundly. Thinking of him we allow the paradoxes of his life and times to meet at his feet like doves offering gifts.
Was it really over 30 years ago he expected reasonableness to win out and become part of America's assumptions toward their own citizens and thus their historical role/right as a nation on this planet?
And it turned out he was right to look in the mirror and celebrate that Black was really very beautiful and powerful and integral in every aspect of American life and history, no matter what was yet to be written, unearthed.
Ali came to the attention of the world married to his ring ambition, via the expanding medium of television projecting the carnival of his entourage, the brashness of his borrowed wit, the inconsistent message of his pseudo-politics, the guile of his personal hunger to be what his complex boxing and simple faith had created: Ali.
For people of all colors coming of age in the 1960s and the 1970s, Ali remains a seminal guide to their self-recognition, be it loathing or passage. For when people find their essential fears or ambitions in your defiance, their dread or dreaming within the testament of your very public (and professional) existence you are a someone who must live out of time, iconic, emblematic and indelible. The merits of Ali the man, failures and fraudulence, warrior and victim, personality and mystery are subject to debate, defense and attack, for the better understanding of times past and the present tense of what makes up post-modernity. Yes, that's how big the kid from Louisville has become, because he's a subject for reflection if you wish to discuss great boxers or invest in the defining of an era, it's sensibilities and irrationalities. Like all great people, we invest the convex currents of our times onto their deeds witnessed or fabled, their personalities bared or televised. Mostly we will never know Ali, and it doesn't matter. He lives in all of us.
Ali, the man, was and remains all about conversion and evolution, reminding us all to be unique unto ourselves. His very name reminds us that to remain in motion, constantly adaptive and altering our trajectories, evoking what you know beyond what you have been told, to master the sound of your own words, your own need for silence, will keep you alive in the world of the electric cities. The contender becomes a champion until he's just a contender, then no more living off his pain, he's just a man, happy to be who he is because of what he was, Ali.
(Muhammad Ali turned 60 on Thursday January 17, 2002 – Happy Birthday Champ!)