I was 10 years old in March of 1971 when Muhammad Ali faced Joe Frazier in what was billed as “the fight of the century.” Ali had been stripped of his title in 1967 and barred from fighting in the United States. The case Clay v. United States, captioned under his birth name, Cassius Clay, because the world at large wasn’t yet ready to recognize his chosen name, was working its way up to the Supreme Court. In the meantime, Atlanta, Georgia and the state of New York licensed him to fight, so in 1970 he finished off two tune-up opponents to prepare for his showdown with Frazier, who’d won the championship while Ali was sidelined.
It was a huge event. Not just a huge sports event, but a huge cultural event. At a time when these kinds of things didn’t happen, the pre-fight hype made the nightly newscasts; Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor had to talk about it. They’d show clips—Ali, urbane, machine-gun fast with his put-downs of Frazier; Frazier, poor Frazier, inarticulate, grunting, uncharismatic. Ali knew it wasn’t a fair fight, and in truth, he was mean and demagogic, as he was later to George Foreman. He called Frazier a “gorilla,” mocked him, belittled him. Frazier couldn’t hold a match to him.
Dad got four tickets to a closed-circuit screening of the fight at the U.S. armory in Fairmont, about 20 miles down the road from Morgantown, where Fairmont State played its basketball games. There was a huge screen, and, I don’t know now, maybe 2,000 seats. God, was it smoky. Smoke smoke smoke. And it was black and white. And if my mind isn’t playing tricks on me, there was no commentary. Just 2,000 chain-smoking men watching a silent screen.
Dad took a friend, I don’t remember who, and I chose my friend Steve Szapanos, which turned out to be unfortunate only in that Stevie was for Frazier. I was Ali all the way. Ever since I’d become aware of him, he’d embodied everything I liked. He was against authority. He did it his way. He said to the makers of rules that their rules were a fantasy, weren’t for him. This was right up my alley. Dad, a liberal atheist and normally an admirer of rule-flouters of every stripe, had a bit of an old-fashioned streak when it came to Old Glory (he volunteered for the Navy two days after Pearl Harbor), and didn’t like loudmouths besides.
Frazier put Ali on the canvas early in the 15th round and won a unanimous decision. I was crushed; thought he was finished. Then, in January 1973, George Foreman came out of nowhere and pulverized Frazier. Ali got a fight against Frazier. They put it in Kinshasa, Zaire, in October 1974. No one thought Ali had a chance. No one. Many people thought Foreman would literally kill him. Ali knocked him out in the eighth round. It was staggering.
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942—in segregation. He had little schooling. The draft board rejected him, initially, because he could barely read and write. But he could think. He wondered why his name was Clay, the same name as the famous, and white, 19th century Kentucky senator. He wondered why he wasn’t allowed into places white people were. He took the gold medal he’d earned in Rome at the 1960 Olympics and threw it into the Ohio River.
He ran rings around every other heavyweight contender, back in a time when boxing was a much bigger sport than it is now. It was baseball, college football, horse racing, boxing. He predicted the rounds he’d drop his opponents, and he was right every time. It was like Stephen Curry. Or Curry plus. Moved the sport to a place it had never been.
But then he did more. He transcended the sport. In February 1964, he was training for his big title fight with champion Sonny Liston in Miami. The Beatles were in town, on their first trip to America, and his people and their people understood somehow that Clay (as he was then called) and the Beatles were revolutionaries in the same vanguard, so they did a press thing together. He clobbered Liston, and the next day, he changed his name, joined the Nation of Islam, told America: I will not be what you want me to be.
He never was. He was, frankly, hated, and for many years. Despised. But in the end, America realized he’d been right and came to him. I remember now watching the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympics, in Atlanta. This and that person ran around the track carrying the torch. Finally, the last runner brought it up to the dais and handed it off, and the spotlight shone—on Ali. The crowd went mad. His right hand shook as he leaned down to light the torch. Parkinson’s had taken him. I knew. I knew because Dad, who strode so confidently into the Fairmont Armory in 1971, had been felled by the same disease. Dad couldn’t get out of bed by himself in 1996. He died on Pearl Harbor Day the next year, 55 years and 363 days after he’d enlisted, his organs laid waste, just as Ali’s have been now.
I had the great good fortune to meet him, in the early 1990s. He even shook his fist at me, that fist that was the most famous fist of the century, and pulled that face on me, raising his eyebrows, overbiting just as he did when he said “Mmmm, Frazier, you’re going down!” It was an ecstatic moment of my life. But my main memory of him isn’t selfish. It’s shared. Because, like all historical giants, he belonged to all of us. Meeting him was something, but the real thrill was just to have been alive in his time; to have had the chance to contemplate how a black baby born into segregation, whom fate might have made an elevator operator or a railroad station shoe-shine man, could change the world. He deserves for us all to spend some time marveling at that.