By William “Duke” Smither
“Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways forms and times. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family.” (Muhammad Ali: Prizefighter, Poet, Philosopher– and, Humanitarian)
Time stood still for me, on June 4, 2016… That’s when I first heard of Muhammad Ali’s death from the day before. Initially, only one word came to mind: “Genuine.”
Simply put, Ali was a sincere, authentic human being and the world is better off from knowing him, in my opinion. However, being from Kentucky, I can recall times when our segregated world wasn’t so keen on Muhammad Ali—known to us, then, as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (in honor of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a white, 19th Century Kentucky politician and abolitionist). But, Ali’s universe—and, our world, too— was changed forever, when he returned home, to Louisville, with an Olympic gold medal from the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. He had competed in the light heavyweight division, at age 18, winning all four fights, defeating thrice-European Champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski (Poland), to win the gold medal. And, America was chest-thumping proud.
WORD ON THE STREETS… (“It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Muhammad Ali)
Ali first came to our attention within his amateur “Golden Gloves” competition, winning 6 Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, 2 national Golden Gloves titles and an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national title, to boot. The effort compiled a record of 100 wins, against 5 losses, according to most sources. Quite an accomplishment, considering it was the theft of his brand-spanking new, red-and-white Schwinn bicycle, when he was 12 years old, that kick-started the performance.
As I recall the story: In 1954, a white cop and boxing coach (Joe Martin) at Louisville’s Columbia Auditorium gym, encountered a fuming 89-pound Ali and friend (attending a merchant’s bazaar for free popcorn and ice cream), pissed off that someone had stolen his $60 bike, ranting about what he was going to do to the thief. A brash, trash-talking Ali said he was going to “whup” the guy whenever he found him. But, Martin, who later became Ali’s trainer for the next six years, pulled in the reins a tad and asked if he could even fight. As the storyline goes, Ali joked, “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin cautioned him against making “…any hasty challenges” and asked him to come back to the gym to learn how to fight. Ali returned. Weeks later, young Ali (still Cassius Clay) had his first fight, which he won… and, the rest is history.
Back then, boxing reigned supreme. And, the long list of black boxing legends was good conversation fodder for neighborhood juke joints, barbershops and street corners, too. Even around kitchen tables, powerful black legacies, like Jack Johnson’s, Joe Louis’ and “Sugar Ray” Robinson’s, always stirred the gab. No offense intended but, for black kids, most white boxers were simply “villains in the ring,” during the long ebb and flow of Old Jim Crow—yet, fair-minded, competitively skilled white fighters were highly respected, just the same.
By the time of Ali’s bicycle rant, many of us were already boxing fans, glued to the handful of neighborhood televisions in the waning years of racial segregation, rooting for the various shades of blackness in the ring. Kentuckians were also fans of welterweight Rudell Stitch, who Ali once sparred with at the famed Bud Bruner’s Headline Boxing Gym. Stitch, another amazing Louisville fighter destined for greatness, died a hero at age 27, three months before Ali’s Olympic Gold Medal win, trying to save a friend from drowning on a river fishing trip. Married with six children, he worked full-time at a local meat-packing plant while boxing to support his family. Posthumously, according to boxing archives, the “Carnegie Hero Fund” awarded Stitch its silver medal, given to “…civilians who risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.” Plus, the National Boxing Association subsequently created the “Rudell Stitch Sportsmanship Award,” for fighters best demonstrating sportsmanship, inside and outside the boxing ring.
CHANCE MEETING/ LASTING IMPRESSIONS (“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” Muhammad Ali)
That fall (1960), I was a 16-year old senior and the first African-American sports editor for the Frankfort High School “Panther” newspaper, in Frankfort, Kentucky, about 49 miles east of Louisville. That’s when I first met Ali during his ceremonial visit to our hometown. He was in town to receive the “keys-to-the-city” honor from Governor Bert Coombs, the highly respected dad of one of our classmates, Lois Combs.
Lacking a common school cafeteria, students were spilling out of the building, in all kinds of directions, heading for lunch. I was in a small group of eight or nine black students heading back to our South Frankfort neighborhood. Along the way, Ali, joined us for the 10-to-12 block trip, blending in like any other 18-year-old homeboy. Despite the notoriety, he quickly put everyone at ease with humor. The guy had constant jokes. Right away, you could tell he might have been the ‘class clown,’ from any school he attended. His facial expressions, alone, would sometimes crack you up. But, the fellas were getting kind of irked over the way the girls were swooning and fussing over his presence. Yet, truth be told, Ali did seem more respectful than the way we often joked around with them. Apparently, more worldly-wise and somewhat spiritual, the guy was a natural comedian with perfect timing and tempo. He could dish out the jokes, as well as take them.
We took him to a neighborhood restaurant, where we chatted about his Olympic and early-life experiences, giving off more clues into what made Ali tick. It also made me appreciate, even more, the moral stands and ethical leadership he adopted later in life. He was unique and unmoved by the lopsided rules and pea brain etiquette of Old Jim Crow. It’s why we loved him. He was spirited and proud, not snooty. And, no matter the audience, he was unforgivingly black.
After lunch, we went our separate ways, back to various classrooms, after pointing Ali in the direction of the principal’s office. But, within 10 minutes of the start of my first, after-lunch class, I was shocked to see Ali standing outside my classroom, making characteristically funny facial expressions, pressing his nose against the door’s window pane. Then, the principal cracked open the door and motioned for the Journalism Class instructor (Mrs. Clark) to come outside. Moments later, she returned with Ali and introduced him around. In the process, the class voted me as the person best suited (as the school newspapers sports editor) to take him around to visit other classes. It was an honor. First, I escorted him to the history class, where my high school football coach, Ollie Leathers, was teaching. The classroom went wild, totally unruly, but Coach Leathers, as well as Ali, had everything under control and seemed to enjoy the experience. Similar antics were repeated in other classrooms we visited, too.
During the escorting, though honored, I was nervous the whole time, thinking Ali might carry some of his joking a bit far, where I (or, other black students) might have to straighten out some wise-mouthed student, later. We sometimes had to “re-educate” a few numbskulls, to maintain the respect we demanded in those awkward desegregation years. But, even then, Ali was a skilled entertainer with good, crowd-pleasing instincts and such an aftermath never even came close to fruition. In fact, the escorting was one of the best moments of my high school years (after certain football and track victories). Afterwards, I turned Ali over to one of the staff members of the principal’s office, knowing he had a previous commitment. But, the whole encounter probably left me ‘hooked for life’ on Ali, also dubbed “the Louisville Lip,” for his colorful pronouncements and annoyingly true fight predictions. How could you not like this guy(?), I often wondered.
SHAKING UP KINFOLK– IN AFRICA, TOO… (“I had to prove you could be a new kind of black man. I had to show the world.” Muhammad Ali)
It was just a couple of months following the 1960 Olympics that Ali, still only 18, signed a two-year professional/ managerial contract with a group of 10 Louisville area businessmen. It took care of all management, training, travel, and promotional expenses, including a trainer’s salary, and provided for a percentage of Ali’s income to be set aside in a pension fund, untouchable until he was 25 or retired from boxing. But, it wasn’t long afterwards, when Ali’s ring experience and unique personality began commanding sums into the millions, much of which he quietly gave away, supporting charitable causes. And, through the magic of television and closed-circuit theater productions, I witnessed many of his bouts. Even after 50 years of marriage, those fights remain highlights within the shared experiences, for me and my wife.
Each bout was unique, with its own special footnotes. Against Ken Norton (March 1973), Ali proved he could take a lickin’—and, keep on tickin’–when Norton broke Ali’s
jaw (some say as early as round 1; Norton thought the 11th round), in the 12-round bout (Norton won by decision). In Ali’s second fight against Leon “Toothless” Spinks (September 1978), Ali’s persistent jabs and rights made him the first fighter in history to win the World Heavyweight Championship three times! But, 11 years earlier (February 1967), Ali’s merciless punishing of Ernie “What’s My Name” Terrell (Ali’s taunt), forever warned the world never to use his former “slave name”—Cassius Clay– ever again. The 15-round fight was ugly with Ali taunting Terrell, shouting, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?” Before the “whupping,” Terrell had repeatedly called Ali by his birth name, offending Ali.
Against “The Black Destroyer,” Earnie Shaver (September 1977), the 15-rounder left me so exhausted from watching Ali taking a beating that I almost had to walk away. Yet, in the final round on wobbly legs et al, Ali found his heart, some legs to stand on and a way to win, by unanimous decision. Later, he was heard saying Shavers was the hardest puncher he ever faced and claiming, “Earnie hit me so hard, it shook my kinfolk back in Africa.”
It was after snatching the World Heavyweight Championship from Sonny “the big ugly bear” Liston (in 1964), as Ali use to taunt him, Ali actually shed his “slave name,” converted to Islam and began calling himself “Cassius X” (until renamed ‘Muhammad Ali’ by Nation of Islam’s leader, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad) — which made him even more controversial– given Black America’s emerging black consciousness, the Civil Rights Movement and the awestruck bewilderment of diehard white supremacists, covert or overt.
RUMBLIN’ BUT NO CRAWLIN’… (“I didn’t want to submit to the army and then, on the Day of Judgment, have God say to me, ‘Why did you do that?’ This life is a trial, and you realize that what you do is going to be written down for Judgment Day.” Muhammad Ali)
In 1966, he shook up the world by refusing to be inducted in the U.S. military, further angering whites and blacks, citing his religion as the core of his conscientious objector reasoning in refusing to fight in Viet Nam, proclaiming “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong…”. He was later arrested and convicted for draft evasion and, in 1967, stripped of his heavyweight title for five critical years and all boxing license were cancelled at, perhaps, the peak of his boxing career (his conviction was overturned four years later). I remember it well, since I was then a recent, proud recipient of an Honorable Discharge from the U.S. Navy and initially befuddled by Ali’s stance. Like many African-Americans, notwithstanding our own controversial decisions to serve in the military, I simply felt we were helping the cause by having some ‘skin in the game,’ so to speak. Yet, knowing a little about Ali’s mettle and code of ethics from our chance meeting before my military service, I grew to admire and respect his gutsy line-in-the-sand and willingness to suffer the consequences. We needed folk like Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But, I still feel we need some ‘skin in the game,’ in the military, too.
By October 30, 1974, when the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” rolled around to Zaire (now, Democratic Republic of the Congo), the world seemed to have forgiven Ali. The historic fight was featuring then-undefeated, power-punching, World Heavyweight Champion, George Foreman, against the ‘People’s Champ,’ Muhammad Ali, with promoter extraordinaire Don King funding the ritzy event.
Yet, something was different with Ali: the way he moved (or, didn’t move), the way he danced (or, didn’t dance), more cunning/ less speed, etc., compared to his old self, prior the stripping of his title. And, the famed Ali-Shuffle footwork within this newfangled ‘rope-a-dope’ strategy truly worried me, since it seemed Foreman was using him as a punching bag, with some unforgiving blows to the kidneys and head, while Ali relaxed on the ropes.
But, it was the other way around! Ali was using him instead, resting on the ropes—scheming– while Foreman was getting increasingly arm-weary from power-banging the body. Ali finally put him down in the 8th round and won the fight by knockout. I was so happy that it brought me to tears.
The following year, September 30, 1975, Don King promoted another historic event, the “Thrilla in Manilla,” in Manila, Philippines, the final of three fights between Muhammad Ali and “Smoking Joe” Frazier. Before the fight, Ali used to chant that it will be a “killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manilla,” referring to Frazier. Also, Ali repeatedly called Frazier an “Uncle Tom” and the “White Man’s Champion,” infuriating Frazier even more. The fight was vicious. It was bloody. Exhausted, both ring warriors showed heart and resolve. But, by the 14th round, Frazier’s legs were rubbery. His corner threw in the towel. Ali, too, suffered from exhaustion, but won by technical knockout. Ali later describes the battle in his memoir, “The Greatest: My Own Story, Muhammad Ali” (w/ Richard Durham, Random House; 2nd Edition, 1975):
“So I’m going to talk about it, the hardest fight I’ve ever had in my life—the deadliest and the most vicious… Should I say that the fight we had tonight is the next thing to death? That I felt like fainting and throwing up? Frazier is a helluva fighter and when Carlos Padilla, the referee, looks at Joe’s face, and his manager, Eddie Futch, won’t let him out of his corner for the fifteenth round, I’m so relieved, so tired, and in so much pain that my knees buckle and I stretch out right where I am—right in the middle of the ring… Joe’s words come back to me: “You one bad n’…. We both bad n’s… We don’t do no crawlin’.”
When Muhammad Ali began his 30-year+ battle with Parkinson’s disease, I felt maybe his legacy might someday drift into oblivion, until I saw him in Atlanta, Georgia, 1996, when he not only lighted the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics, he re-lighted the hearts of America– and, the world. Then, I realized his life work will never be forgotten. It was clear to me that Ali was already living in the hearts of sports fans and citizens around the world.
His daughter– Laila Amaria Ali—stepping into the professional boxing arena (October 1999) was great news, despite the hoopla surrounding women boxers at the time. She not only had the looks and persona of a champion, she had all the ring skillsets, too. Obviously “her father’s daughter”– and “pretty”, too– she could back up her own trash-talking, as well. With super-middleweight and light-heavyweight titles (IBA, IBF, WIBA, IWBF belts), Laila (nicknamed, “She Bee Stinging”) retired from boxing, undefeated with 24 wins (21 by KO). I saw her last professional fight, and 2nd against Gwendolyn the “Stealth Bomber” O’Neill, televised from Cape Town, South Africa (February 2007).
She dropped O’Neill in round 1 so fast, that she apologized to fans and former South African President Nelson Mandela, for being so brief. The “whupping” further confirmed for me that the name, “Ali”– dad and daughter– will never fade from boxing. It’s an idea which was later affirmed on Saturday, June 4, 2016, that day when time stood still, for me.
While I was listening to retired boxing champ, Chuck Wepner (who fought Ali in March 1975, but lost by technical knockout, in the 15th round), in his CNN telephone interview, from his Bayonne, New Jersey home, about Ali’s passing, I heard his wife, Linda, in the background crying, first muffled, then somewhat hysterical. Wepner asked what was wrong. She said, “There’s a butterfly in the room!” It was in the bathroom and she stressed, like in “float like a butterfly…” Wepner said he’d take care of it, once he got off the phone. Obviously, its significance hadn’t registered right away.
Reportedly, after catching the butterfly, it must have hit him. Wepner said he’d like to release it at Ali’s funeral or put it in the casket, since he never saw a butterfly in their apartment, during their entire 23 years of living there… and that the windows were closed. He then told his wife that “maybe it was Ali, transformed into a butterfly, saying goodbye to us,” because they were close friends. Ali and Wepner became good friends, after they fought 41 years ago. Apparently, their respect for each other was beyond boxing, without regards to race, creed or color.
That’s not hard to believe. Muhammad Ali affected folk that way, beyond the ring, friend or foe, black or white. And, I can’t help but chuckle when I think of him in heaven, or on the Day of Judgement, proudly inching his way to the front of the line, looking for his friend, Howard Cosell, and a ‘ringside seat,’ cracking jokes and reciting poetry for whomever would listen, like, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see… Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t…”.