Tony J Bender: That’s Life — Rebel With A Cause

If the sun wasn’t as bright Friday, if the moon seemed morose, if the stars seemed muted, it’s because the the world is less than it once was. That which is irreplaceable is gone. An expanse of soul, poetry, conscience, heart and humor have left us.

I loved Muhammad Ali. I embraced him when I was in junior high, a defiant age, a man-child living in a rebellious time, and Ali was the biggest rebel of them all. He didn’t just defy convention, he danced around it, teased it, ultimately knocked it out and then wrote poems about it. Rumble, young man, rumble!

Ali represented all rebels when he emerged from a three-year exile in 1971 to challenge the great Joe Frazier, a man who, in a trilogy of epic fights, extracted huge chunks of Ali’s essence.

I met the great warrior once. Together, Joe Frazier and I leaned over the railing of a riverboat chugging up the Missouri and watched the world go by. He had been Ali’s friend, until Ali cruelly called him an Uncle Tom and a gorilla. He was neither. Frazier was gentle, soft-spoken, yet coiled inside. I liked him and felt guilty for cheering against him all those years ago, but knowing I would do so again.

“We forgive Muhammad Ali his excesses,” Dave Kindred once wrote, “because we see in him the child in us, and if he is foolish or cruel, if he is arrogant, if he is outrageously in love with his reflection, we forgive him because we no more can condemn him than condemn a rainbow for dissolving into the dark. Rainbows are born of thunderstorms, and Muhammad Ali is both.”

Ali’s Muslim religion forbade him to take up arms. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong,” he said. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

When I fully understood the reason for Ali’s exile in the prime of his boxing career, I loved him more for his sense of justice, his moral center. By then, I was watching the draft lottery numbers fall every night on television, each one representing scores of young men destined for Vietnam and a war that made no sense. I thought about Ali and wondered what I would do if my number was called. But the draft ended, the war ended, before I was forced to make that decision.

They called him a coward. Nonsense. He could have done his brief service boxing exhibitions, a morale booster for the troops. Instead, he stood on principles, and it cost him dearly. But it also elevated him in a way only tribulations can and, from that platform, he spoke hard, unpopular truths.

He’d represented his country at the Olympics in 1960, worn his gold medal for two days out of pride, only to return to the segregation and second-class citizenry of his times.

Later, he would spur the American conscience with gentle, chiding humor. “We’ve been brainwashed. Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a white, with blond hair and blue eyes. We look at all the angels; we see white, with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure there’s a heaven in the sky and if colored folks die and go to heaven, where are the colored angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing the milk and honey! Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white… All the good cowboys ride the white horses and wear white hats. Angel food cake is the white cake, but the devil’s food cake is chocolate. When are we going to wake up as a people and end the lie that white is better than black?”

Was he The Greatest? Yes. You should be slapped for even asking. When he fought the punishing George Foreman in 1974, I listened to my transistor radio into the night for updates, praying he would survive. Win? I held out only a razor-thin slice of hope. Ali was too old, Foreman too strong. And yet … a miracle, created before our very eyes. When the fight ended in the outdoor stadium in Zaire, the skies opened up and it rained as if he had summoned the universe to his cause. He was magical, mythical and, ultimately, mortal.

Sometimes, in daydreams, I hatched plans to meet Ali to tell him what he meant to me, how much I admired him, to have him raise a fist to my chin and scowl for the camera. But Muhammad Ali did not need another testament to his greatness, one more worshipful fan.

Irony. Hubris. Recklessness. Heroism, nobility and sacrifice — it’s all there in Ali’s story. The ransom he paid to Foreman, Frazier and a tearful Larry Holmes, who never wanted to destroy his hero, was ultimately measured in lost years, the loss of his voice. This was the deal he struck.

Like steel tempered in the forge, he could not have been The Greatest without the trials and setbacks. Ali needed mountains to climb. And in the end, Muhammad Ali became the mountain.

© Tony Bender, 2016

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