When I was growing up, it seemed that everyone knew who Miss America and the heavyweight champion were; I couldn’t tell you either/any of the current ones at this moment. As a kid, I became mildly obsessed with memorizing the heavyweights, starting with John L. Sullivan. In my lifetime, Rocky Marciano was the first (and retired undefeated) heavyweight champ, but I don’t remember him directly, followed by Floyd Patterson. I vaguely recall Patterson losing to Ingemar Johansson in 1959, but recall with clarity Patterson defeating Johansson in the 1960 rematch. A couple years later, it was a bear of a man named Sonny Liston who had the crown.
In late 1963/early 1964, I kept seeing this guy, nicknamed by the press The Mouth or the Louisville Lip, named Cassius Clay, who would be taking on Liston for the title. I don’t think that anyone took him too seriously as a contender, even though he’d won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as a light heavyweight. But he beat Liston and became the heavyweight champion.
Then he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This seemed peculiar, foreign to most Americans, black and white. Indeed, many fighters, including Liston and Patterson, as I recall, kept referring to him as Clay, as much as a taunt as anything. (I always gave props to the late ABC Sports commentator Howard Cosell, for during their sometimes contentious relationship, he always referred to the boxer by the new name he had chosen.)
I was intrigued by this new champion, who hung out with the Beatles:
although John Lennon indicated that he preferred Liston.
What REALLY caught my attention, though, was when, after being reclassified 1-A, Ali, for religious and personal reasons, refused military induction. As a result, he was unable to box in the United States, and was stripped of his title for three years, starting in 1967. This seemed to me at the time hugely unfair of the boxing commission. But it was him daring to challenge the US government (and ultimately winning), thus challenging the conventional wisdom of naturally going to fight in an American war, that radically changed my whole mindset about war, and led to my pacifist leanings. I was also affected by Martin Luther King’s eloquent opposition to the Vietnam war in 1967, that famous “betrayal” of Lyndon Johnson.
Ali would regain the title against George Foreman in 1974, but by 1978, boxing had become an alphabet soup of competing boxing commissions, and I stopped paying that much attention. Still, I was thrilled, and startled, to see Ali light the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and I truly enjoyed the piece the late Ed Bradley did on him for “60 Minutes”, when Ali feigned narcolepsy, during which he jabbed at the reporter. When the joke was revealed, Bradley laughed heartedly, and Ali had an infectious grin.
Happy birthday, Muhammad Ali.