I’m not much of a boxing fan, I want to say that straight away. But I was a fan of Muhammed Ali, who was not just great, but The Greatest.
I was just 8 in 1964 when Cassius Clay — as Ali was then known — fought Sonny Liston. It was rare for anyone in my family to care much about a boxing match, but my father got pretty amped up for this one, and now, 52 years later, I think I know why.
I remember lying on the living room floor, listening to the bout as it came over the speakers of our huge console record player and radio. Daddy told me we were for Liston, and I seem to recall him telling me that Liston was so tough that he wouldn’t flinch if you hit him in the belly with a sand-filled basketball. Where Daddy got that notion, I have no idea; I can’t find any reference to it on the internet. In the end, it didn’t make any difference because Cassius Clay won, and the rest is history.
Daddy never liked Ali. He saw him as uppity, a braggart, and later, someone who changed his name to “one of those black names,” then abandoned his country by becoming a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.
I wasn’t into boxing, so I never let what Daddy said about Ali bother me much. Growing up, I was oblivious to a lot of things. Boxing, racial strife, even Vietnam were rarely on my radar screen.
A lot of that changed when I left my father’s house.
My most enduring memory about Ali is from October 1, 1975. By then I was in college, sitting outside under the trees at Scholtz Beer Garten in Austin, Texas, drinking a cold one and watching two men in the heat of battle from the Philippines. It was the Thrilla in Manila, one of the best fights in the history of the sport. Even for a non-boxing fan, it was impossible not to be entranced.
Time passes, and I guess Scholtz’s isn’t the happenin’ place that it used to be. I remember my in-laws looking askance when I insisted on going back there a few years ago, but for me, it’ll always be the answer to one of those trivia questions:
“Where were you during the Thrilla in Manila?”
“Well, I was sitting at a picnic table out behind Scholtz’s, where I saw something that I’ll never forget!”
The thing about Ali, you didn’t have to be a boxing fan to love him. He was a great American, for reasons a lot of people, sadly, never understood.
Godspeed, Muhammed Ali. You truly were The Greatest.