Now that all the fanfare and much of the hypocrisy related to Ali are over I would like to state my piece.
I got to meet Ali when I was a teenager. I was having dinner with a date in Times Square when I spotted him. He was walking down 42nd Street with an entourage of followers. I saw the commotion, recognized him and ran out of a restaurant. My date could not believe, or understand my reaction and why I had to shake his hand. It was a moment I will never forget. I never got a chance to meet my other sports hero, Roberto Clemente, but I am glad that I got a chance to meet Muhammad Ali.
I believe a good quote to describe Ali was written by one of my favorite sports authors, David Zirin. He wrote this about Ali in his book, "What's My Name Fool":
Never has an athlete been more reviled by the mainstream press, more persecuted by the U.S. government, or more defiantly beloved throughout the world than Muhammad Ali. Yet this Ali, the catalyst that forced professional sports - and the country as a whole - to examine the issues of racism and war, no longer exists.
Zirin wrote that in 2005, but I believe it is more fitting today.
Ali was the first 3-time world heavyweight champion, but was more than a boxing champ. He was also a champion out of the ring, standing up for causes that very few would dare talk about. I will never forget the controversy he caused on my block back in February 1964 when he fought the then-champion, Sonny Liston. Every old timer, including my father, disliked Ali because he was "a loud mouth." To put this in perspective we need to remember that in the 1960s very few would be as loud as that young, light-skin black boxer who few knew anything about.
Sonny Liston represented the status quo. He was a quiet soft-spoken black champion that would only be heard in the ring when he fought. He was the type of champion that America in the 1960s tolerated. The young, Cassius Clay was just the opposite. He was loud, bragging about beating Liston. His best friend was Malcolm X who lived with him while Clay was training for the fight against Liston. Associating with the controversial Malcolm X was enough for the country to be rooting for Liston to beat the pulp out Clay.
The young Clay shocked the world, the odds and all the conservatives by beating Liston in the seventh round on a technical knockout. From that Liston fight forward the world could not stop listening to Clay who soon afterwards changed his name to Muhammad Ali when he joined the nation of Islam.
There was no other sportsman that I respected as much in my generation as Ali who stood up for what he believed in at all cost. His stance on the war in Vietnam and his willingness to lose his championship belt rather than serve an invading army was way ahead of his time and misunderstood by many. However, he resonated with young adults like myself who also refused to fight in a war against people that never did anything to me, or the country.
I hope that future athletes will remember what he stood for and his message. To stand up for what you believe in, no matter what the cost.
Malcolm X stated the following about Ali when everyone else was predicting an easy knockout for Liston:
Clay will win. He is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known and he will mean more to his people than Jackie Robinson. Robinson is an establishment hero. Clay will be our hero... Not many people know the quality of mind he has in there. One forgets that though the clown never imitates the wise man, a wise man can imitate the clown.
Now the hypocrisy lies in the fact that very few of the corporate news channels, or the politicians who were so quick to jump on the Ali funeral made very little mention that Ali was Muslim, a member of the same religion that is being chastised by many in this country and one presidential candidate.
It's so interesting in life how I remember when those same entities were crucifying Ali for his beliefs and his stance, but here they were at his funeral paying great eulogies to him. In my culture, we say: "Lagrimas de cocodrillo (tears of a crocodile).
I'm Catholic, but in any religion Ali represented them all: May you Rest in Peace.