Feature Image Credit: Memorabilia Expert
On Friday, reports started to surface that the Ali family was gathering at Muhammad’s bedside in the hospital. An eerie feeling came over me when I read it; this was not the first report of its kind but this one felt different. In fact, when I read it yesterday I thought to myself, “I hope this is not the one.” Unfortunately, it was. The sport of boxing is dead today, but back in his day Ali not only gave the sport life, he put his heart in it. Muhammad Ali showed sports fans across the globe what it meant to have confidence in yourself and showed everyone what that fine line between confidence and cocky looked like.
Ali even brought his talents to the Mile High City as you saw in the cover photo. It was July 14th, 1979 and the matchup with former Broncos defensive end Lyle Alzado. It was just an exhibition match, as Ali had recently retired from the sport of boxing. Alzado, who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. and spent a lot of time boxing in the Golden Glove circuit, lasted eight rounds with the greatest of all-time. More than 11,000 fans showed up at Mile High Stadium to bear witness.
Today the sport of boxing is even less popular than soccer in the United States; sure there are the die-hards like there are in every sport, but no casual fan is taking in a boxing match and they are certainly not going out of their way or paying to view an event. It changed with the rise of MMA, it changed when we lost the great American heavyweights, and to me it changed when my Father no longer cared about boxing.
Growing up, my dad and his friends would gather every time there was a big fight. It seemed as though we hosted or attended a party for every single Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield or Lennox Lewis fight. Throughout the night I was told stories of how great boxing is but how much greater it was back in Ali’s day. He was a legend to my dad and his buddies, which made him like a superhero to me. Ali was who guys looked up to and the guys were who I looked up to as a kid. Their stories were told with such enthusiasm and excitement; they painted a picture of a hero.
Today we debate which athlete danced too much in his intro or why he wore this or that to post game presser. We argue over things said in press conferences or said about another player. Muhammad Ali laid the groundwork for today’s athlete and they way they approach their respective sports.
Swagger was not a sports word back then, but Ali had it. He did not just have it, he was it. His confidence in himself was seen as cocky and over the top, but as we look back today we call it self-belief. Ali taught all athletes what it meant to buy into your own hype. The difference is Ali backed it up, every single time he stepped into the ring. Today’s athlete has a sense of entitlement without earning it; you have to earn it first.
The poster of Ali knocking down Sonny Liston in their second fight hung in my dad’s garage throughout my childhood; I would bet he still has it somewhere in his house today. It’s not hanging up anymore, but there’s no chance he threw it out. He meant to much to my father.
Then came what he did outside of the ring. On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed and returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in the third round. Today we would call it #Draftgate.
Ali stood up for what he believed in and not what our government told him he had to believe in. That was unheard of at the time and to be honest if the draft were to ever take place again my guess is that hundreds of thousands of people would refuse to enter into a war that they do not believe in.
Rest in peace, Mr. Ali. Thank you for showing us we can buy into our own hype if we back it up for a lifetime. Thank you for countless hours of entertainment for myself as a child and my family. Thank you for letting me watch my Dad and his buddies act like animals while watching you fight.
Thank you Muhammad Ali, for living a life that only you could of lived. You have now floated like a butterfly for the last time but the sting of your loss is like that of 10,00 bees for your millions of fans.