Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: Muhammad Ali was the Greatest, in and out of the ring


Wayne Gretzky might have been "The Great One," but there was only one "Greatest." That, of course, was Muhammad Ali, and we lost Ali overnight.

Ali was 74 when he died in Arizona from complications stemming from the Parkinson's disease that he had been afflicted with for decades.

He was arguably the most famous athlete or sports celebrity in the world. There aren't too many sports figures whose death would have taken up as much time on the cable news channels as Ali's did.

That's because Muhammad Ali was more than an athlete, more than a boxing champion.

Ali was the direct opposite of Michael Jordan, whose famous quote "Republicans buy shoes too" had haunted Jordan for years. Ali had the bully pulpit and used it.

Everything Ali did during his career, he did it as a most courageous man. He became a Muslim and changed his name from Cassius Clay when it was not popular. He chose not to serve in Vietnam, a decision that cost him years off his career. In the years following his boxing tenure, he became an outspoken champion of civil rights and then in the last few years, was a quiet face of Parkinson's.

For those of us who grew up with Ali, those were just a few of the mileposts along the way of his career.

At the time of Ali's win over Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, the fight almost took a backseat to singer Robert Goulet, who muffed the National Anthem prior to the fight.

Liston was the so-called "Black Hat" champion, so Ali's win was celebrated. His rivalry with Smokin' Joe Frazier, however, was not celebrated in the same way.

In the eyes of many, Frazier was the champion of the establishment and Ali the champ for more liberal elements in the society of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Admittedly, I was in the Frazier camp, but it wasn't because of any establishment or anti-establishment bent. I went to college in Philadelphia, and Joe Frazier's gym was about 20 blocks up North Broad Street from my dorm at Temple University. He was the hometown hero. So, much like how college students who come to Boston from all over the country become Red Sox fans when they leave, Smokin' Joe was Philly, and so were we.

The one thing you should know about boxing in the early 70s is that it was a huge deal. Pay-per-view broadcasts of championship fights were seen, not on your television for $49.99, but in large movie theaters. There was still boxing on regular TV, but the biggest championship fights were in places like Madison Square Garden, and broadcast into theaters.

There was also live radio coverage of those fights. I can remember gathering with friends in the lounge area on our floor in the dorm, listening to the broadcast of Ali-Frazier.

As great a champion as Muhammad Ali was, the years he spent post-boxing turned him from a champion into an icon.

Of all the eloquent things said and written about Ali in the past days, this from former University of Massachusetts men's basketball assistant coach Craig Carter, really struck me:

"Just got emotional in the car thinking about how much Ali helped mold me. He allowed me to feel strong in a world that tries to beat young black men down," Carter, now an assistant at Cornell wrote. "How many of us would have made the sacrifice he made in his prime to stand on principle?

"Who is this generation's Ali?"

There may not be one, because there will never be another Muhammad Ali.


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