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Muhammad Ali, the people’s champion

GEORGE E. CURRY | 6/13/2016, 11:29 a.m. | Updated on 6/20/2016, 11:38 a.m.
I know it’s extremely difficult, but if you can, ditch the memories of Muhammad Ali showing up uninvited at Sonny ...
George Curry

(EmergeNewsOnline.com) – I know it’s extremely difficult, but if you can, ditch the memories of Muhammad Ali showing up uninvited at Sonny Liston’s training camp, announcing that he was going bear hunting. Put aside his boasts of being the greatest of alllll-timmmme. Scratch the images of the “Ali Shuffle” and his patented rope-a-dope.

Ali’s greatest victories came outside the boxing ring. He was the greatest of all time as a boxer and, more important, as a humanitarian. He consistently displayed unwavering courage and a willingness to be unpopular. In fact, it was his unpopularity with the establishment that made him popular with people all around the word.

I had the pleasure of meeting Muhammad Ali twice, first in the late 1960s as a part of a conference of college newspaper editors in Washington, D.C., and in the late 1990s as a board member of the American Society of Magazine Editors.

At that first meeting, I was struck by how physically imposing Ali was at 6 foot 2-and-a-half inches and about 236 pounds. I pretended to be boxing with him – making sure he knew that I was just pretending – and my fist looked like a small pimple next to his face. Ali was extremely generous with his time and was playful as ever.

By the time of our second meeting, he had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects body movement. Though considerably slowed, he was still the star attraction, communicating with his eyes more than with his mouth.

Whether in his prime or just a shell of his old self, Ali was one of the world’s most recognized and beloved public figures, a brash boxer whose punches and physical dexterity could back up the words that flowed from his mouth.

“Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. Period. If you just asked him, he’d tell you. He’d tell you he was the double greatest; that he’d ‘handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder into jail.’ But what made The Champ the greatest – what truly separated him from everyone else – is that everyone else would tell you pretty much the same thing,” the president and first lady Michelle Obama said in a statement.

He was also the boldest – unafraid to take a stand. He was widely criticized – and even by African Americans such as Jackie Robinson – for joining the Nation of Islam shortly after his upset victory over Sonny Liston. He later left the NOI but remained an outspoken advocate for Blacks and the downtrodden.

In an interview with Playboy magazine, which is included as part of The Muhammad Ali Reader, edited by Gerald Early, Ali was asked: “What would the old Cassius Clay be doing today?”

In his typical direct manner, Ali replied, “If I was Cassius Clay today, I’d be just like Floyd Patterson. I’d probably have a white wife and I wouldn’t represent black people in no way. Or I’d be like Charley Pride, the folk singer. Nothin’ bad about him – he’s a good fella and I met his black wife, but Charley stays out of controversy. It’s not only him, because I could name Wilt Chamberlain and others who don’t get involved in struggle or racial issues – it might jeopardize their position. I’d be that kind of man.”