Blogs > From The Bleacher Seats

A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Happy birthday, champ

Muhammad Ali leans away from a Joe Frazier left in one of the three historic fights the two heavyweights engaged in.  Ali turned 70 earlier this month.

I saw Muhammad Ali fight plenty of times.
It was always on television, though. I saw him go more than once with Joe Frazier; watched as he leaned against the loose ropes in Zaire against George Foreman; and the bloody pummeling of George Chuvalo that left Howard Cosell so aghast
I watched his interviews mostly with Cosell when the words came out quicker than that left jab of his and left me wondering if Keats or Frost had ever considered pugilism.
It was always on the RCA television, though, with the screen hardly 13 inches across and the already fuzzy picture just one loose connection of the rabbit ears away from disappearing into oblivion.
Years later, I would spot Ali in person ringside at some of the local fights. He’d usually be there to see Tommy Hearns or Hilmer Kenty or someone else in the Kronk stable.
Still, I had never really met Ali until years later, at his place in Berrien Springs. I was there with Stuart Kirschenbaum, the former boxing commissioner in the state.
The former champ’s speech was halting and tip toeing toward incomprehensible. He was paying a severe price for the job description he had embraced for years.
Still, his wit remained sharp. At one point, Ali climbed into the ring and beckoned Kirschenbaum to join him. I started to laugh and he shot me a stern look. He threatened to kick my ass and then smiled playfully.
Ali celebrated his 70th birthday on January 17. A gala celebration will be held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas next month.
I was thinking about the champ just the other day. I was putting away Christmas decorations, and there on a shelf in the basement was an autographed boxing glove signed by Ali.
It is the only autograph I’ve ever gotten. In a profession that has over the years brought me in contact with some of the greatest in their particular line of work like Michael Jordan, Barry Sanders, Jack Nicklaus, Al Kaline, and Steve Yzerman, I have never even considered asking for a signature.
That’s because I write about sports, but I do not fawn over sports figures. A couple of quick visits to a professional locker room smacks the stardust from your eyes. Some of the guys are pleasant. Some are ornery. Some are thoughtful and there are others who should greet the next thought that comes into their heads like it is a stranger because it is.
Basically, professional athletes are like you and I only much, much richer.
But Muhammad Ali was more than an athlete. He was an icon who helped define a turbulent era in this country. He was probably the world’s most recognizable athlete and in some corners of the world, might still be.
Cassius Clay was on his birth certificate, but Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964. In 1967, three years after he had won the world heavyweight championship, he refused to be drafted into the military, stating “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
He would eventually be arrested and found guilty of draft evasion; he was stripped of his world championship and his boxing license was suspended. While Ali was never imprisoned, he did not fight again for nearly four years.
Love him or hate him, Ali transcended sports. He captivated people. He clobbered people. People adored him. Others abhorred him. He made historic stands both inside and outside of the ring.
Some of those cost him plenty. Happy birthday, champ. Have fun in Vegas. Meeting you was a signature moment in my life.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home