Henderson: You Had To Be There To Get Ali

Ali Was A One Of A Kind Person


Tampa–Since Muhammad Ali’s death over the weekend, people have tried their best to explain why he mattered so much. It is a noble effort, for sure, but it’s probably fruitless for the millions who knew him only from Google and news clippings.

To really understand what Ali was about, you had to be there.

How can anyone born after 1980 understand why, on a February night in 1964, you had to listen to a small radio by your bed – keeping the sound low, because your dad had to wake up early for his job at the factory – as this brash big-mouth known then as Cassius Clay beat the unbeatable Sonny Liston and became the heavyweight champion of the world.

And when it was over and Clay had shocked the world, you somehow knew that everything had changed. America was a different place he came on the scene. In the 1960s, the nation liked its athletes to be humble (even if it was just for show, which in a lot of cases it was). They could never question their country.

And it helped if they were white.

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Then along came this mocking, bragging, loud and captivating man who said what he was going to do and then did it, like he did to Liston–twice. Being the heavyweight champ mattered a lot more then than it does today. The casual sports fan today might have trouble naming the champ. That was not a problem back then.

Being the champ carried an obligation to behave in a certain way. That included reporting for duty when your military draft board said to do so – which it did in 1967. But the champ had changed his name from Clay to Ali by then and adopted the faith of Islam. He exercised that faith by refusing induction into the Army because of the Vietnam war.

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“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what?” he said in an interview during that time to explain his stance.

“They never called me n—-r, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father. … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

He was stripped of his heavyweight title. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court eventually sided with Ali, he was kept out of the ring for three years during what would have been the prime of his career. It sharpened the popular divide over him, but likely cemented his standing as an icon with younger people.

But he always was a contradiction, wasn’t he?

A pacifist who excelled at a violent sport. A braggart who became a voice of reason. And in his declining years, as he battled Parkinson’s disease during the final three decades of his life, Ali’s stature only grew.

His three fights with Joe Frazier were world-stand-still events. When he beat George Foreman to regain the heavyweight crown, the world danced with him. And when he died, a little bit of ourselves died with him.

So I’m sorry, kids, that you can only read about him or watch grainy video on YouTube or the news shows. You will never completely understand what Muhammad Ali meant. Words can’t capture the fullness of his impact, and no video can explain why you had to tune in the radio that February night so long ago.

He belonged to the world for sure. He just belonged to some people more. To really understand, you had to be there.

Editor’s note: This article also appeared on SportsTalkFlorida.com

After nearly 42 years as both a sports and news columnist, along with a variety of other roles, at the Tampa Tribune, Joe Henderson brings his slant on politics and sports to NewsTalkFlorida.com and SportsTalkFlorida.com. Originally from the small town of Lebanon, Ohio, Joe resides outside of Tampa with Elaine, his wife of more than 35 years. Their two grown sons stop by when there is time, and their faithful Watch Cat, Sassy is always on guard.