We must have been sitting around a radio in 1965 when Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston with a punch so fast and so perfect, only a few close to the ring saw it. My brother and I were sitting in a garage that had been converted to a bedroom and we had no television. We had seen pictures of Ali, I suppose in magazines or the newspaper, but beyond that, knew little of what he looked like, except that he was a black man who was not afraid to talk to the media.
Most white people didn’t like him in 1965, at least not the ones I remember. The second Liston fight was his 21st professionally and the rap was and would continue to be, for a while at least, that he hadn’t really fought anyone who was considered to be at the top of their game. Floyd Patterson was considered old when Ali, as Cassius Clay, beat him, and Archie Moore was 38, old enough to be Ali’s father when they fought in 1962.
The fact that Ali was being mentioned in the same sentence as Rocky Marciano did not sit well with a lot of people and his rants on television didn’t help the image most people I knew had of him. I remember also his refusal to enter the military didn’t sit well with a lot of people in late ‘67.
So, what happened that changed the image the world had of this man, such that when he passed last week, the whole world paused to pay its respects? I believe it was the first Frazier fight when, at the age of 29, he lost a 15 round unanimous decision to Joe Frazier (talk about heart) after the three year suspension for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war. He had beaten Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, but the Frazier fight was the big one. We loved it, hoped we had heard the last from Ali and wished him well in retirement, but he fooled us and fought three more times in ‘71, winning all of them.
His heart was beginning to show and now we were thinking, “What if he had those three years back?” Surely the man regrets having lost those prime years in a sport that demands youth be served. And in thinking “what if?” we thought how unique it was for a person to actually put their beliefs in front of millions of dollars and a place in the history books. It was a defining moment, but there were others.
Two more fights with Frazier as Ali was in his 30s, Norton, who broke his jaw in their first fight and Jimmy Young, who was a very tough opponent. Ali, now in his middle 30s with over 50 fights in the books took on the best boxing had to offer in Ernie Shavers, Leon Spinks and George Foreman over the next four years. Talking all the while just as he had as a 20 year old. And we thought, “what if?”
Well, I’ve been reading about him, watching him on TV, watching him on YouTube, watching him jump rope, do the “rope-a-dope,” make other boxers look like dopes and as far as I know, clean from dope for over 50 years. I know he was no dope, for sure. But what was he, to me — the white boy in 1964?
Honestly, I think he was an enigma to me at the age of 17. Was he “The Greatest?” The truth is, as most of us, he evolved in my mind and in the mind of America and the world. I know he gave me memories, wonderful memories of a beautiful man, caught in controversy, as he walked through a storm and held his head high. There’s a song about that, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and he never did, as he became known for what he stood for and less for “what if?
He made people stop asking “what if? because that didn’t matter anymore. He had proven his great heart in the ring and in life. So, what was it he was the greatest at? As time went on we saw him as the greatest at giving, sharing and being an example all young men could follow. In the beginning I don’t think he had any idea that the skills he showed us in the ring would become less important than the skills he showed us as a human being. He became the man who was capable of being revered and missed for what he stood for as much as what he could do with his hands. “The Greatest.” Was he the greatest fighter? Of course. He always made the others look so slow.
Sonny Harmon is a professor emeritus at Georgia Military College. Visit his blog at http://sharmon09.blogspot.com.