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When I heard last week that Muhammad Ali had succumbed to the ravages of Parkinson’s disease I couldn’t help but smile through a welling tear. I can’t claim I knew much of him – certainly not at a personal level – but thinking of the impressions that he had left on my life I could only be moved.

I can’t say that I recall Cassius Clay. The Olympic legend predated my sports recollections. I really don’t have a lot of recall of his stand against the Vietnam War or his conversion to the Muslim faith. I do recall the golden age of his boxing resume, however.

The bouts in obscure locations around the world – the Thrilla in Manilla, the Rumble in the Jungle – and his showmanship through a lengthy career are forever ingrained in my youthful memories.

The day I shook the hand of the man, rather than the legend, however is my most distinct memory.

In the summer of 1979, as a student journalist I finnagled my way into an invite to the pre-fight press conference at the Denver Marriott hotel for the exhibition fight between Ali and Denver Bronco lineman Lyle Alzado.

I had always been a detractor of Ali. For no reason in particular I had been a proponent of Joe Frazier and George Foreman in their epic battles with “The Greatest”. Maybe Ali simply played the villain to my superheroes. Perhaps I couldn’t relate to the athleticism and bigger than life persona of the man. But regardless who I rooted for, Ali was superhuman in my eyes.

At that chance meeting in 1979, however, my view changed. Partly because of the view I received.

Ali was already in the waning days of his career, though still a champ, and perhaps was even already exhibiting symptoms of the Parkinsons. But when he reached out to shake my hand in the reception line, there was a shocking gentleness. This Titan in my memory looked me directly in the eye – we stood toe to toe and the fact that he did not tower over me was a stunner. Dressed in an off-white linen suit, Muhammad Ali was a man – no longer a fictional character to me.

Two weeks later Ali would dance eight rounds of an exhibition with Alzado in sun-baked Mile High Stadium. No scoring was kept but the press gave him a unanimous decision. You can view the “fight” video to this day here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=3t5h4wtPwBo

In some ways, that’s when his life began. Ali battled Parkinson’s longer than he battled foes in the boxing ring. But it wasn’t his war against that disease that occupied his mind and effort over the past four decades, it has been his commitment to being true to himself and his beliefs and the impact he imparted on others.

Who cannot recall his surprise appearance to light the torch at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. To see the bombastic boxer humbly maneuver on a world stage again was stunning and inspiring.

To use the word humble to characterize Ali may seem ludicrous. Yet from that hot summer in Denver to these days of eulogizing from an adoring world it has been one that I can’t help but apply to the man. For all the hyperbole and the media frenzy that Ali could generate, it appears clear that as he matured in life and as a man he found a comfort zone of bringing comfort and support to others.

I can’t say that I share all of Ali’s beliefs, nor do I agree with all of his actions. I know that his memory will be used by others for a plethora of causes in the days to come – some of which he would agree and many that I question whether he would.

I do know, however, that I will always value the life of the man and hope that I can humbly use his example to daily reinvent myself to better serve the values and beliefs that I do hold. I can’t think of a greater way to go.

Local boxers Kenny Keene and Reilly Erskine, from two different generations, share their memories and thoughts about “The Greatest” in this week’s print edition of the Messenger Index.

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