In 1996 the Olympic Torch was run 1300 miles by 800 people across the country of Greece, then flown to Los Angeles. There it began a 16,199 mile journey across the United States to the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Over 12,000 Olympians and American citizens ran a flaming torch across 42 states, on bicycles, boats and trains, to the opening of the games.
4-time gold medalist Al Oerter ran the touch into Olympic Stadium to begin the opening ceremony. He handed it off to bronze medalist and reigning heavyweight boxing champ, Evander Holyfield, who passed it to swimmer Janet Evans. Winner of 3 Olympic gold medals and 4 world records, Janet had been given the honor of running the torch the final lap around the track.
Janet finished her lap and headed up the final ramp to the Olympic Flame, symbol of the games. But she did not light the flame. Instead, she lit the torch held by another Olympian, hidden in the wings, perhaps the most respected and beloved human on the planet.
He stood there a moment holding the torch, arms shaking with the palsy of his disease. Millions of us stood in front of our TVs, cheering along with the crowd in the stadium, in one of the most inspiring, poignant, and emotional moments in Olympic history. Then, in his final Olympic appearance, Ali lit the flame and the games began.
Last week, 20 years after that moment and a decades long battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali died at age 74.
Ali’s ascension to the Olympic stage in Atlanta began in 1960. 18-year-old Cassius Clay, Ali’s birth name, won a gold medal as a light heavyweight boxer in the Rome Olympics. Cassius Clay turned pro, compiled a 19-0 record, and got a shot at the title against Sonny Liston, a fearsome, bruising fighter. Before the fight, Clay engaged in what would come to be known as Trash Talk, announcing he would knock out Liston and taunting him at the weigh-in. Entering the ring a 7-1 underdog, Clay overwhelmed the champ, earning the title when Liston could not come out of his corner to answer the bell after the 6th round.
After the fight, Clay entered the Nation of Islam, changing his religion and his name, to Muhammad Ali. The following year he fought Liston in a rematch, knocking out the former champion in the first round.
Brash, arrogant, cocky and even ‘truculent’, as Howard Cosell called him, Ali was a flamboyant self-promoter and a shameless big mouth. After knocking out Liston for the heavyweight crown, he said, “I’m the king of the world, I’m pretty, I’m a bad man! I shook up the world! It’s hard to be humble when you’re as pretty as I am.”
He loved to tease his opponents and get inside their heads with trash talk. He called Sonny Liston a “Big Ugly Bear”, Floyd Patterson “The Rabbit”, Earnie Shavers “Acorn Head”, and Joe Frazier “The Gorilla.” Compared to Muhammad Ali, Donald Trump is a rank amateur at name calling.
But he was also funny and charming. The modern era’s first Trash Talker, Ali created insult poetry. He used rhyming couplets to predict when he would knock out his opponent, and gems like this –
“If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!”
He was a clever promoter, and had perhaps the greatest line in the history of personal branding, “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” “His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
This is part of why he was such a polarizing figure. Many people hated him for his behavior. It seemed unsportsmanlike, unseemly, demeaning. Others hated him for being black and standing up for himself. To them he was uppity and didn’t know his place.
Then in 1967, it all came crashing down. Ali’s name came up in the Vietnam draft. Going to war was contrary to his Muslim beliefs, and as an African-American in the early days of the civil rights era, he was conflicted. Why should he go to war for the country that treated him like half a man? As he put it, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger.”
Ali refused to enlist in the Army and filed as a conscientious objector. The draft board rejected his claim, the Justice Department rejected his appeal, he was indicted by a federal grand jury, and an all-white jury convicted him of draft evasion. He was arrested, fined, then stripped of his boxing license and his heavyweight title.
Putting his money where his mouth was, Ali sacrificed his livelihood and the sport he loved. During the prime of his career, from age 25 to 29, Ali would not use his boxing skills. Instead, he used his courage and eloquence to stand up to our government and the institutional racism that denied civil rights to millions of marginalized Americans.
He fought the good fight for 3 1/2 years, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1971 a decision was handed down affirming Ali’s right to conscientious objector status. Boxing license restored, he was back in the ring within months, attempting to win back his title.
But he was no longer that young, physical specimen. He had to reinvent himself, and use strategy and smarts to replace the strength and stamina he had lost.
Cranking up his trash talk, Ali attacked his opponents viciously before his fights, but in the ring, he did just the opposite. He would lay against the ropes, cover up, allow his opponents to pound on him, and taunt them to do more. The Rope-A-Dope strategy, as he called it, was frustrating to watch. But his opponents punched themselves out, then tired, they faced a barrage of punches from Ali coming off the ropes in the late rounds of fights.
This is how, in 1974, Ali reclaimed his title from the most imposing boxer of his generation, George Foreman. 25 years old to Ali’s 32, George was a heavily muscled puncher in the prime of his life. They met in Zaire for the “Rumble in the Jungle,” where for 7 rounds Ali played Rope-A-Dope with Foreman, allowing the younger, stronger man to blast away at his covered-up torso. Ali took everything George dished out, and whispered into his ear during a clinch, “Is that all you got George”?
Then Ali came off the ropes in the 8th, and with a furious five punch combination, knocked George to the canvas and out.
The following year, Ali defended his title against Joe Frazier in “The Thrilla In Manilla.” The third of three epic bouts between these two greats, Ali again used the Rope-A-Dope, and despite being rocked by Frazier’s heavy punches, came off the ropes in the 14th round to end Frazier’s night.
This man could take a punch. Frazier said, “Man I hit him with punches that would bring down the walls of a city.” But it was the punches thrown outside the ring that were the hardest for Ali to withstand.
He lost his youth protesting the draft, then lost his health to Parkinson’s disease in 1987. After a 56-5 record and becoming the first boxer to win the title three times, Ali was crippled by his disease, barely able to walk or talk. But that didn’t stop him.
He raised over 100 million for Parkinson’s Research. Talked a man down from jumping off a 9th story ledge in 1981. Negotiated the release of 15 US hostages in Iraq in 1990. Won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 1997. The UN Messenger of Peace award In 1998. Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century in 1999. And finally, the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
So what does Muhammad Ali have in common with all of us Manic Impressives? This guy achieved success far beyond what most of us dare dream for ourselves. But for a good part of his life, Ali was out of step with society and suffered horribly because of it. He was the square peg being jammed in the round hole. The irritant that held up the mirror to society. Imagine his frustration being hated by millions for doing what he knew to be the right thing to do. Not just for himself, but for all of us.
Had Ali not made a personal stand and had his title taken from him, he would have been remembered as a great boxer. But because of his personal sacrifice and the losses he suffered, Ali will be remembered as a great humanitarian and beloved international icon for social justice.
George Foreman, who after his boxing career made $200 million on the George Foreman Grill and named all five of his sons George, said this about Ali – ” We fought in 1974, that was a long time ago. After 1981 we became the best of friends. By 1984, we loved each other. I am not closer to anyone else in this life than I am to Muhammad Ali.”
“The greatest man I’ve ever known. Not the greatest boxer, that’s too small for him… Everything America should be, Muhammad Ali is.”
Rest in peace Champ. You were, and forever will be, The Greatest.