If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone, and afterwards many are strong at the broken places. But those it cannot break it kills. It kills the very strong and the very brave and the very gentle impartially.
My heroes are disappearing, one by one. That leaves only me and my generation as the patriarchs and matriarchs and role models.
Scary thought, that.
I can remember the mid-sixties vividly, better than I can recall yesterday, as a matter of fact. It was a time of turmoil and tumult and for a sports-mad kid who was just becoming aware of the world outside the hockey rink and baseball diamond there was no bigger name than Muhammad Ali.
I first knew him though, as Cassius Marcellus Clay, a name that I thought was very cool. In 1964 I read a book called ‘Young Olympic Champions’ and he was included because he had won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics. Boxing was still in its heyday and it was a pre-politically correct time when one still heard the expression, “Boys will be boys.” For that reason we spent a good amount of time pummelling each other, especially my brothers and me. My grandfather passed on two old pairs of boxing gloves that he had worn while boxing with his friends and brothers. Needless to say they were ancient and the horsehair stuffing was falling out because they had been used since before Kaiser Wilhelm I was the Emperor of Germany. We’d put them on and pound each other in between putting in loads of hay, cheered on by my uncle and grandfather who thought it was loads of fun. None of us knew any better during those times when a concussion was regarded as no worse than a skinned knee, but it’s probably the reason why my head is in the condition that it’s currently in. I don’t know about my one surviving brother. It’s not that I’m totally insensitive to his condition. It’s just that I can’t remember where he lives.
Lest I leave you with the impression that my family’s only means of communication was punching each other in the head, let me assure you that we also had plenty of reading material. Besides Time Magazine, Newsweek and Maclean’s I still remember what an impression the book entitled ‘Black Like Me’ left on me, as to what it would be like to be black in America in the ’50s and 60s. My parents also had on hand ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’ and ‘Soul on Ice’ by the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. And then the American government drafted a newly-politicized and recent convert to Black Islam who also happened to be the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. He had also recently changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He didn’t want to be known anymore by his old ‘slave name.’
Anyone younger than a boomer probably couldn’t realize what a divisive character the young Ali was. The mid-sixties still saw a majority of white America supporting the Vietnam War and the U.S. had no truck with anyone not on board with “my country right or wrong.” I remember playing in a hockey tournament in Boston in 1968 and being asked what I thought of draft dodgers. The answer that my hosts expected was obvious but I didn’t want to give my true opinion. And I wasn’t in danger of being sent to jail or having my world-famous title stripped from me.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Ali’s opponents, white or black, were subject to his taunts and teasing. The thug-like Sonny Liston was “the big, ugly bear.” Canadian George Chuvalo was “the washerwoman.” Joe Frazier, always my favourite and a fighter who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps from a hopeless life of abject poverty was an “Uncle Tom”, probably the worst branding one African-American could give to another. Which is my point. Ali was human, not a plastic saint. He would still have to be considered the most famous individual of our time and quite likely the personality who had the most impact on the world in a positive way in God -knows-how- long. His personal life was chaotic, married four times and at least nine children with six different women. But anyone who ever met him talks of the kindness of the man: his humour, good-nature and his total sense of the equality of all, whether they were living in a remote village or the President of the United States. And despite the fact that he made and lost several fortunes, we never saw him flogging running shoes or sports drinks, even before Parkinson’s Disease stole his gift of speech and his status as maybe the most-quoted man in the world.
It’s been said before about others. And for no one is it more applicable than for Ali.
We shall never see his like again.