The greatest, p.10
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       The Greatest, p.10

           Walter Dean Myers
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  And because doing the right thing is what Muhammad Ali has always been about.

  What will be the legacy of Muhammad Ali? The man who was named the Greatest Athlete of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated magazine still builds upon his reputation. But legends are made by the people who define them, who look at the lives of people like Muhammad Ali and decide from the vantage point of history whether what they have done is worthwhile. This is why books are written, and why the reader must bring critical judgment to what is written. To understand the considerable contribution of Muhammad Ali, it is necessary to look at him in the context of the times in which he lived.

  The boy who was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, came into a world that few modern young people can understand. The separation of the races under segregation laws that existed in Louisville and in many parts of the United States essentially deemed that in order to survive, black people had to know their “place.” The message that this sent to young black boys was that they were somehow inferior human beings. College was a way for some black Americans to claim at least a limited part of the American dream. But for the young men who could not afford college or who did not have the education to attend, life was a constant struggle in which a person had to depend on the good nature of others to survive.

  In this sort of hand-me-down existence, the kind of life that young Cassius Clay and his father before him had experienced, the kind of life that Malcolm X had known in Omaha, Nebraska, it is very hard to maintain a sense of pride in either yourself or your people. In this kind of existence, the struggle with self-hatred was often marked by hair straighteners and skin bleaches — tools used to erase racial heritage rather than fight inequality.

  Cassius Clay, soon to become Muhammad Ali, had lived life as a second-class citizen. When he won the Olympic gold medal and began receiving the instant attention the medal generated, he realized that, as he put it, he was “kind of special.” People who interviewed Ali throughout his long career rarely seemed to recognize that not only did Ali represent, for better or worse, all of black America, but that he understood he did. Young black boys and girls across the country wanted to say, like Muhammad Ali, that they were beautiful, that they were pretty. It wasn’t vanity that had this handsome young man staring into television cameras and posing for photographers, but rather a desire to broadcast to the world that black was indeed beautiful. In Muhammad Ali, young people found a model for their pride. Ali, in turn, never forgetting where he came from, accepted this role.

  At first there were doubters among the black population. When this young man stood up and bragged about how beautiful he was, when he stood up and announced how great he was, would he fail to perform and thereby embarrass all of them? And did the white world understand how easy it was for black people to be embarrassed? Muhammad Ali did. Charles “Sonny” Liston, the ex-crook, was an embarrassment to the NAACP, whose members asked Floyd Patterson not to fight him. They didn’t want Liston to have a chance at the title because they felt that with few redeeming qualities outside of his magnificent punching power, Liston as heavyweight champion would bring shame to the black community.

  Muhammad Ali did not embarrass us. He defeated the fierce Sonny Liston when everyone thought he would fall. He followed his heart and joined the Nation of Islam. For some black people Liston’s Mob ties were more desirable than Ali’s affiliation with the Nation of Islam, which called attention to race at a time when many African Americans, and whites as well, wanted to put race out of the national vocabulary.

  Sportswriters wanted Muhammad Ali to play a familiar role. They felt he should be grateful for the chance to compete in the ring, grateful for the chance to make a good living, and grateful for their attention. In short, he was expected to lose his identity as a black person because he was an athlete. Instead, Ali emphasized his position as a black man in boxing and offered himself as an example of what a black man could accomplish.

  Muhammad Ali was twenty-two when he won the title in 1964, but he was not the youngest person to win a heavyweight championship — Floyd Patterson had won the championship at twenty-one. But Ali was the most youthful heavyweight fighter of all time. Coupled with his incredible media savvy, he appealed to young Americans, white and black. He brought a sincerity to his life and his career that always made him an interesting person to listen to and consider. How could someone who looked that young, who was that attractive, be involved in the most brutal sport known to modern man?

  Prior image: Ali in 1963, at his prime.

  * * *

  One writer declared in print that the Black Muslims, members of the Nation of Islam, had terrified Ali into not going into the army by suggesting that he would be put into immediate danger of getting killed. This was the kind of nonsense the media concocted to imply that Ali was not capable of making important decisions. However, he clearly made all such decisions, and continues to do so. In the end, Ali’s refusal to accept induction into the army was one of the most important statements of the 1960s. He was a celebrity willing to go to jail for his beliefs. Many young people, white and black, followed his example.

  * * *

  Ali has lived an interesting and exciting life. By no means has he lived a perfect life. His first three marriages ended in divorce. He is the father of seven girls, Hana, Jamillah, Khaliah, Laila, Maryum, Miya, and Rasheeda, and two boys, Muhammad Ali, Jr., and Asaad. While he undoubtedly loved his children, his public life and the constant traveling made a successful family life difficult.

  And while he could be vastly entertaining, there have been a number of people he has hurt, especially fellow fighters, by putting them down in public. But he achieved such great popularity that he became a nationally recognized leader of youth — he captivated the minds of American teenagers. He spoke to overflowing crowds on college campuses, yet did not attend college himself. If he had been through the college experience, could he have taken American youth even further in examining the issues of the day?

  In his professional life Ali was a standout. Every young fighter who rises above the first amateur rank begins to realize that fighting means the acceptance of pain, and Ali, early on, was willing to do whatever it took to become a champion. He was not, like Sonny Liston or George Foreman, the neighborhood bully skirting the law and beating up smaller kids. Ali was a good kid who knew what he wanted. Through his style, speed, and footwork, he showed the world that intelligence, discipline, and determination could overcome the tactics of sheer power and aggression in heavyweight fighting. And when his speed was not sufficient, he showed in his later fights against Frazier and Foreman that resolve and the courage to accept pain could also be a path to victory.

  Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Muhammad Ali, however, is the one that is impossible to find in the record books. Ali grew as a human being — from the kid in Louisville who needed his bicycle because bus fare wasn’t that easy to come by to the young man who successfully dealt with the idea that every word he uttered represented black America — who tried to promote black businesses, pride, and well-being. He gave and still gives much of his time to young people, especially to sick children.

  In examining the life of Muhammad Ali, his personal and professional choices, and the fighters he faced in the ring, one wonders if it is morally right to allow young men to risk their health and future for the prizes to be found in a fighting career. So many young people have come to the ring from the farms and from the ghettos — Jews, Italians, blacks, Irish, Latinos — all looking for the elusive dreams of fame and fortune. As the fight game grows, and it is growing, perhaps we don’t have the right to deny these young people their chance to succeed. But because we know that in so many cases that quest has ended in the physical ruin of lonely warriors who have dropped off the sports pages and out of the public view, we should at least, as Muhammad Ali has done, try to make sure that when people do sacrifice their bodies, it is not their only way to secure human dignity.

  Courage does not mean
letting go of fear. It means having the will to face one’s fears, to face the dangers in one’s life, and to venture forward to do that which is morally right. Writers have said that Ali was afraid of Liston, that he was afraid of going into the army, that he was afraid of turning away from the Nation of Islam. There were things of which he was afraid, but he was big enough, courageous enough, to face everything that came his way. He has been knocked down in his life, and he has had the courage to rise.

  Ali died on June 3, 2016, at the age of 74. He remained a deeply religious man until his death. As a Muslim, he prayed five times a day and talked about his religion to anyone who was interested. He lived with Parkinson’s disease, which impaired his speech and movement, for more than thirty years, and was a supporter of the National Parkinson’s Foundation, lending his name and time to yet another big fight.

  Whatever he did, Ali was always a man of outstanding character. He always did what he believed to be the right thing. It is the most that anyone can ask of a life.

  Everything I do has a purpose, all of God’s beings have a purpose. Others may know pleasure, but pleasure is not happiness. It has no more importance than a shadow following a man.

  — Muhammad Ali, 1942–2016

  For your reference, the page numbers listed below indicate the location of photographs as they appear in the print version of the book. They do not match the page numbers in your eBook.

  Jacket: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

  Part I Opener, p. xx (Cassius Clay at age 12, 1954): Bettmann/CORBIS.

  Part II Opener, p. 40 (Ali in training): UPI/Bettmann/CORBIS.

  Part III Opener, p. 84 (Ali, after defeating George Foreman for the World Heavyweight championship): Bettmann/CORBIS.

  Part IV Opener, p. 128 (The Greatest, 1978; all America felt the pain): Bettmann/CORBIS.

  Associated Press/World Wide Photos: pp. 34-35, 161.

  Bettmann/CORBIS: pp. 11, 27, 44-45, 53, 62-63, 73, 80-81, 94-95, 104-105, 124-125, 156.

  CORBIS: pp. 136-137, 145.

  Lynn Goldsmith/CORBIS: p. 142.

  Peter Read Miller/Sports Illustrated/Time Inc.: p. 149.

  Ali, Muhammad and Richard Durham. The Greatest: My Own Story. New York: Random House, 1975.

  Arai, Tim, Joseph Peters, and Stanley Wilde, eds. Muhammad Ali: In His Own Words. New York: Pinnacle books, 1975.

  Bingham, Howard. Muhammad Ali, A Thirty Year Journey. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

  Cantu, Robert C., ed. Boxing and Medicine. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1995.

  Hauser, Thomas. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.

  Jordan, Barry D., ed. Medical Aspects of Boxing. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1993.

  Miller, John and Aaron Kenedi. Muhammad Ali, Ringside. Boston: Little Brown, 1999.

  Pacheco, Ferdie. Muhammad Ali: A View From the Corner. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1992.

  Reemtsma, Jan Philipp. More Than a Champion: The Style of Muhammad Ali. New York: Vintage, 1998.

  Remnick, David. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of the American Hero. New York: Vintage, 1998.

  Roberts, James and Alexander Skutt. The Boxing Register: International Boxing Hall of Fame Official Record Book. Ithaca, NY: McBooks Press, 1999.

  Tanner, Michael. Ali in Britain. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 1995.

  For your reference, the terms and page numbers that appear in the print version of this book are listed below. They do not match the page numbers in your eBook. Please use the Search function on your eReading device to find terms of interest. Page numbers in italics indicate the location of photographs as they appear in the print version of the book.


  Abdul-Jabbar, Kareem, 64

  Abernathy, Ralph, 71

  Alcindor, Lew, 64

  Ali, Muhammad (Cassius Clay), 34–35, 40, 84, 128, 142, 156, 160–161

  Berbick flight (1981, Nassau, Bahamas), 146

  birth of, 4

  Bonavena fight (1970, NY), 88, 90, 92, 141

  boxing lessons, 6

  boxing skills and style, 9–10, 19–20, 46–47, 82, 140–146

  Bugner fight (1973, Las Vegas), 103

  Bugner fight (1975, Kuala Lampur), 130, 144

  career of, 25, 57, 130

  childhood of, 5–9

  children of, 157

  Chuvalo fight (1966, Toronto), 56

  Chuvalo fight (1972, Vancouver, B.C.), 101–102

  civil rights movement, 33, 36

  Cooper fight (1963, London), 31–33, 36

  Cooper fight (1966, London), 31–33, 36, 56–57

  courage of, 106, 139, 143–146, 159

  draft induction refused, 61, 62–63, 64–65, 106, 155, 157

  draft registration, 59–61

  education of, 9

  Ellis fight (1971, Houston), 100–101

  fight chronology, 165–169

  Foreman fight (1974, Kinshasa, Zaire), 115, 116–123, 124–125, 126–127, 130, 143, 144

  Foster fight (1972, Tokyo), 101, 103

  Frazier and, 85, 90, 91, 99–100, 132

  Frazier fight (1971, NY), 91–93, 94–95, 96, 141

  Frazier fight (1974, NY), 108, 111–112, 130, 141

  Frazier fight (1975, Quezon, Philippines), 131, 134–135, 136–137, 138–139, 144

  Golden Gloves championships, 9, 76–77

  health of, 50, 109–110, 132, 134, 148, 150–151

  Holmes fight (1980, Las Vegas), 146

  Jones fight (1963, NY), 30–31

  leadership of, 70

  legacy of, 152–155, 157–160

  Lewis fight (1972, Dublin), 102

  Liston fight (1964, Miami Beach), xiii–xix, 43, 44–45, 46–47, 147

  Liston fight (1965, Lewiston, Maine), 50, 51–52, 53, 88

  Lubbers fight (1973, Jakarta), 107

  Lyle fight (1973, Las Vegas), 130, 144

  marriages and children of, 157

  Mathis fight (1971, Houston), 101

  media and, 22–23, 78–79

  Moore fight (1962, Los Angeles), 26, 27

  Moore training camp, 18–19

  name change, 47–48, 56

  Nation of Islam and, 28, 36, 37–38, 42–43, 48–49, 66–67, 154–155, 159

  Norton fight (1973, Los Angeles), 107

  Norton fight (1973, San Diego), 106–107, 141

  Olympic Games (1960, Rome), 10, 11, 12–13, 77, 143, 147

  Olympic Games (1996, Atlanta), 147–148, 149

  Parkinson’s disease, xi, 148, 150–151

  Patterson fight (1965, Las Vegas), 52, 54

  Patterson fight (1972, NY), 102–103, 104–105

  Powell fight (1963, Pittsburgh), 30

  Quarry fight (1970, Atlanta), 71–72, 73, 74, 141

  Quarry fight (1972, Las Vegas), 102

  as role model, x–xi, 97–98, 114–115, 118, 152–155, 157–160

  role models of, 113–114

  Spinks fight (1978, Las Vegas), 144

  Spinks fight (1978, New Orleans), 144, 145, 146

  Wepner fight (1975, Cleveland), 130, 144

  Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), 9

  Amateur boxing

  economic levels, 75– 77

  rules of, 17–18

  Antiwar movement. See also Vietnam War

  growth of, 55

  media and, 28


  Baldwin, James, 39, 68

  Barbella, Thomas Rocco, 48

  Barrow, Joseph Louis, 48

  Beatles, The, 31

  Berbick, Trevor, 146

  Big Time Buck White (play), 70, 108

  Black is Beautiful movement, 46, 91, 97

  Black Muslims. See Nation of Islam

  Black Panther party, 57, 70

  Bond, Julian, 71


  Ali and, 31

  career endings, 133, 140

  dangers of, xi, 17–18, 79, 80–81, 82–83, 129, 133–134, 140, 148, 150

  economic levels of, 16–17, 75

  growth of, 158

  racism and, 49, 90

  Brown, Drew “Bundini,” xiii, 44–45, 78–79, 120

  Brown, James, 117

  Brown, Jim, 64

  Brown vs. Board of Education, 21–22

  Bugner, Joe, 103, 111, 130, 144

  Burns, Tommy, 49


  Cannon, Jimmy, 58–59

  Chuvalo, George

  Ali fight (1966, Toronto), 56

  Ali fight (1972, Vancouver, B.C.), 101–102

  Civil Rights Act of 1964, 51

  Civil rights movement

  Ali and, x–xi, 33, 36, 46

  confusion in, 98–99

  growth of, 21–22, 26, 28, 55

  March on Washington, 38–39

  resistance to, 57, 58

  Clay, Cassius Marcellus. See Ali, Muhammad (Cassius Clay)

  Clay, Cassius Marcellus, Sr. (his father), 4, 99, 113, 153

  Clay, Odessa (his mother), 4, 99

  Clay, Rudolph (his brother), 5, 8, 99, 120

  Cold war, growth of, 26

  Cooper, Henry

  Ali fight (1963, London), 31–33, 36, 43

  Ali fight (1966, London), 56–57

  Cosby, Bill, 71

  Cosell, Howard, 79

  Cream, Arnold Raymond, 48


  Daniels, Terry, 109

  Dempsey, Jack, 48

  Draft resistance

  Ali and, 61, 62–63, 64–65, 100, 106, 155, 157

  Vietnam War, 59–61, 69

  Dundee, Angelo, xiii, xvii–xviii, xix, 32, 44–45, 54, 120, 121, 122, 123

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