Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Time Muhammad Ali Mocked My Cluelessness (Quite Properly) Without Saying a Word ... and Other Reflections on The Greatest

Photo by Seth Arkin, March 1992; please do not republish without attribution
(Note: Much of this article was part of a post celebrating Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday on January 17, 2012, with some revisions and additions upon his passing on June 3, 2016.)

On March 14, 1992, I was insulted by The Greatest.

Quite justifiably.

I'll never forget it, and after the passing of Muhammad Ali on Friday night, I couldn't help but remember it yet again.

The date might not be exact, but it seems right. I think it was the Saturday of a weekend trip to Las Vegas with my friend Todd. I was living in Los Angeles at the time; Todd had come out from Chicago and we drove to Vegas. It was my first time there, and possibly Todd's.

We stayed in a low-rent, now long-defunct hotel/casino called the Continental, but on Saturday morning we were wandering through the MGM Grand (or perhaps it wasn't the "Grand" yet). I think we were in a gift shop when we noticed a bit of a hubbub, something of a throng in motion.

Upon which Todd, who's almost a foot taller than me and thus quicker to notice the nucleus of the commotion, said, "There's Muhammad Ali." (Ostensibly he was in Vegas due to a title fight taking place that night; I can't recall nor find online who was fighting.)

Although I had grown up a bit too late to see Ali fight in his prime, I was well aware of--and awed by--his legend.

In 1992, the Champ was already quite significantly stricken by the effects of Parkinson's Syndrome, but I think that only added to the reverence I had for him. I don't think there are very many celebrities, then or now, that I would be more excited to encounter. Or to photograph.

Unfortunately, as I made my way to the middle of the throng and stood in front of him, I fumbled with my point-and-shoot (well before the age of digital) and missed my chance for a shot of Ali. But, as he was handing out pamphlets about Islam--including one to me--he paused to allow me to snap the photo above.

And though I knew his motor skills weren't what they used to be--when they arguably, at least in a boxing ring, were greater than anyone's, ever--I asked him for an autograph.

Upon which, Muhammad Ali, whose legendary--and often biting--verbosity, but not his acuity, had been stolen by disease, looked right at me and pointed at the pamphlet, as if to say, albeit gently, "Hey you moron, I already signed these."

And being a bit dull, I think I still needed Todd to interpret what Ali was telling me.

While I have never actually read the pamphlet, I treasure it to this day.

Later that afternoon, in a shop in downtown Las Vegas, I had a caricature drawn depicting my encounter with Ali. But neither of us was particularly well represented, and I no longer know where this drawing is. 

Somewhat amazingly, it has been more than 24 years since I met, and was deservedly mocked, by the Great Ali, who was born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942 in Louisville.

And as he was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984--which would long corrupt his motor skills though not his intellect--it seems rather astonishing to me that the most lovably loquacious loudmouth of all-time spent many more years of his adulthood unable, or barely able, to speak ...yet seemed all the greater for it. 

Just this past December, as Donald Trump was voicing anti-Islamic rhetoric, with the stupid and vile suggestion that the U.S. shouldn't allow Muslims into the country, Ali was quoted as saying:
“We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” Ali said in a statement first released to NBC News. 
 “They have alienated many from learning about Islam. True Muslims know or should know that it goes against our religion to try and force Islam on anybody.” 

“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is,” he said. 
So if anyone thinks that as The Champ became more frail his voice wasn't still a vital one, well, you would be wrong.

Just as it would be wrong to perceive him merely, or even primarily, as a boxer, though he was among the greatest--and almost certainly the fastest, most beautiful and entertaining--of all-time.

Read any of the myriad tributes to him over the past couple days--from biographers David Remnick and Thomas Hauser, pretty much every media outlet in the world, friends & admirers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and President Obama--or even just his Wikipedia entry, and you'll learn just how momentous (and at the time quite controversial, even reviled) his decision not to go to Vietnam was, especially as it meant forgoing his championship belt and earning power at the height of his career.

This was a man who stood on principle, perhaps as strongly as anyone ever (and for those who want
to decry a lack of courage to go and fight, keep in mind that Ali was 25 at the time, so he wasn't just randomly drafted, and per his words he didn't see reason in being asked to go kill others around the world when there was so much injustice here in the United States).

Anyway, far beyond my own brief encounter with Muhammad Ali, I truly believe his self-proclaimed title of "The Greatest" is largely accurate, likely less so for what he did in the ring than what he did out of it.

I have numerous Ali books, movies and autographs throughout my apartment, love watching clips of his fights & interviews on YouTube and valued my 2006 visit to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville so much, I went back in 2012. (The building's cool facade--look at the image from a few feet away--and some of the Champ's wonderful quotes made for a nifty holiday card one year.)

Though far from perfect--his braggadocio could go beyond brilliant self-promotion to be brashly reprehensible, as in calling Joe Frazier a gorilla--but I truly believe that, in a plethora of ways, Muhammad Ali was one of the most beautiful human beings the world has ever known.

And truly The Greatest.

I will be forever grateful that he mocked my cluelessness, not just aptly but actually rather wonderfully and sweetly.

So long, Champ. Thanks for the autograph, the memories, the legacy, the social impact, your being a champion for humanity and--in this case, to a white Jewish kid who never saw you fight live in your prime but has long loved you for numerous reasons--a hero.

Because of your loss, our world is a good bit lesser, but because of your life, it is a whole lot greater. 

The first clip below is of Muhammad knocking out Cleveland Williams in 1966 in what many consider his best performance, with his hand and foot speed being astonishing, almost balletic. I find it strange, and a bit galling, that although he had officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964, the announcer here, two years later, is still calling him Cassius Clay.

And this is Ali's stunning 1974 victory over George Foreman, who was the undefeated champion at the time. You might want to skip the introductions and get right to the fight, but it's here in full. I was surprised by how well Ali did throughout the fight, in which I believed he was being more thoroughly beaten, even as he employed his famed "Rope-a-Dope" strategy. He didn't have the flash he did in '66, but what he does may be even more impressive.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Rest in Peace, Butterfly and Bee.