History must surely measure Muhammad Ali’s greatness not only by his prowess in the ring but also by his courage and integrity as a human being.
I know, you’re remembering his boasting, his brashness, his swagger. You recall the Cassius Clay who traded barbs with commentator Howard Cosell (top photo). And you may be wondering what on earth I’m talking about.
But that was the boy. I’m talking about the man.
I’m talking about the man who received the nation’s highest civilian award – the Congressional Medal of Honor – from President George W. Bush in 2005 (lower photo).
Cassius Clay, the boxing prodigy, grew up to become Muhammad Ali, the great champion. Not just the great – arguably the greatest ever – heavyweight champion of the world but a great champion of human rights and human dignity.
As the nation mourns the loss of this legendary boxer, I wonder how much attention will be paid to his noblest battle – the defiance of a tragically misguided establishment.
Of course you remember now.
You remember how he refused to be drafted, refused to fight in Vietnam, proclaiming that he “ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong” because none of them had called him by that degrading N word he’d heard so often, growing up in Louisville, Kentucky.
Yes, I know he had converted to Islam and cited religious conviction for refusing to go to war. But he will be remembered also for his objection on civil rights grounds. And for the harsh price he paid.
He sacrificed a king’s ransom with that gesture. His prison sentence was suspended – and eventually the Supreme Court overturned his conviction – but he was stripped of his world title, and barred from the sport he loved and dominated. He lost three years in the prime of his career – a catastrophic loss not just of income but of physical conditioning.
Ali never fully recovered from that three-year hiatus. But I don’t recall him using it as an excuse when he was defeated. He did what he felt he had to do, and he paid the price.
Like the true champion that he was.