RICHMOND — I've never been keen on people punching each other, whether it's in the schoolyard or the boxing ring. But I did watch at least one, perhaps two, Muhammad Ali fights on television. What gardener could resist "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?" So I watched him float and sting.
While the males in this family persisted in seeing Ali perform as the ultimate boxer, I preferred thinking about his humor, his grace, his insistence on standing up for what he believed in, his brashness in declaring himself The Greatest. Despite the egotism of that self-imposed title, it was hard to deny its truth. It was certainly true in the ring, and he did some incredible things outside of that hot spot.
Once his boxing prowess put him in the news, everyone wanted to hear him talk. He often spoke in rhyme, he could be very funny, and he was a man of many contradictions, many of them made public and probably serving to make him just that much more human all over the planet.
It was not always that way. When he announced after the Sonny Liston fight that he was changing from Christian to Muslim, few in the mainstream were amused or supportive. Almost immediately, he said he was abandoning his birth name of Cassius Marcellus Clay (named for Henry Clay's abolitionist cousin) and would now be known as Muhammad Ali. Plenty of people didn't like that either. But my husband Milt, whose Lively World column in The Eagle ranged from commenting on the latest TV sitcom to social justice, was the rare journalist who defended the boxer's right to change his name and his religion.
When Ali came out against the Vietnam War, asking to be listed as a conscientious objector and citing the tenets of his newly found faith, much of the world went on the attack. The quote, "I ain't got nothing against them Vietcong" earned him a generally hostile reaction from the mainstream media, including renowned sports columnist Red Smith of New York's Herald Tribune.
No one could be immune to the harsh criticism that was hurled his way in those early days, even as people reveled in his boxing skills. But he outlived, out-fought, out-danced all that. He was suspended from boxing for three years because he refused to serve in Vietnam. In addition to standing up for his principles, that move cost him a small fortune.
Eventually, in 1971, his draft evasion case reached the United States Supreme Court, which reversed a lower court decision and gave Ali conscientious objector status. He had already returned to the ring, on his way to proving that the intermission had not numbed his ability to float and sting. While he was on hiatus, he traveled the college circuit, lecturing on race, religion and the freedom he cherished.
People loved meeting him. Our son found it both "awe-inspiring" and "with a sparkle in the eye like none other" when he met Ali in New York and the retired fighter went into a boxing stance before shaking hands. In any room, he was magnetic, even when Parkinson's disease started to impact his ability to communicate.
I hated watching him punch people. I hated watching him pull his "rope-a-dope" routine and let his opponent whack away. But I loved that he absorbed his father's teachings about race, never forgot the racially motivated murder of Emmett Till and spent his personal life making it clear, according to the New York Times, that he believed what he once said: "Color doesn't make a man a devil. It's the heart and soul and mind that count. What's on the outside is only decoration."
Not bad for a guy who finished 376th in a high school class of 391 and made his living knocking people out.
Ruth Bass doesn't watch wrestling, either. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.