Muhammad and Cassius
LC Van Savage
Are sports figures “heroes” simply because of their accomplishments for which they’ve been hired?
Maybe. Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali, for many is and was a hero, or at least heroic considering his accomplishments, and more importantly, what he did for African Americans called Negroes back then, and of course what he did for boxing.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville Kentucky. Did his parents instill the enormous sense of self in their beautiful son, or the big, joyful ego he possessed? Or did he develop that as he began his boxing career. Did he know he was the finest? The best? A winner? Did he know he’d conquer the world? Three times?
Cassius began boxing at 12 and was noticed by a Louisville patrolman named Joe Martin who had a TV show called “Tomorrow’s Champions.” It was he who started the young boxer on his future, handing him over to trainer Fred Stoner who taught Cassius to move like a dancer, to go from boxing averagely to boxing greatly. From then on, there was nothing else for Cassius.
He was an Adonis and knew it, flaunted it and never doubted it. Cassius had a fabulous, movie-star face, full of charm and deviltry and was blessed with a beautiful, muscular, strong and perfectly formed body Michelangelo would have happily used as a model for his David. At 18 he won an Olympic gold medal which he angrily threw into a river later because of his disgust at American racism after being refused service at a five and dime soda fountain. Young Cassius Clay was a man of conviction and opinion. And always, passion.
Still as Clay, he fought Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Weeks before he began chanting his famous mantra, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” hoping to wear Liston down, psyche him out. Using his unusual boxing style of weaving, dancing, taunting and his unique kind of grace, he beat Liston and triumphantly became the heavyweight champion of the world. He was 22 and yet knew he had more to do; he was just beginning to understand the reasons for all this success.
Inspired by human rights activist Malcolm X, Clay was renamed Muhammad Ali by Muslim patriarch Elijah Muhammad, the title meaning “beloved of Allah.”
Again he knocked out Sonny Liston in 1965 and retained his heavyweight championship title.
Then came the Viet Nam scandal in 1966. As a Muslim and conscientious objector, Ali wouldn’t even consider fighting in Viet Nam. There was a horrendous public outcry against him. He was insulted, defamed and reviled. His heavyweight title and boxing license were stripped from him. Knowing what he was sacrificing by sticking to his religious guns, Ali was determined to “pass this test” because he knew it would make him stronger. Sentenced to five years in prison, he was released on appeal with the conviction overturned three years later.
Ali regained his heavyweight title in 1974 fighting George Foreman but was diagnosed with “Pugilistic Parkinsonism,” brought about by repeated hammered blows to his beautiful head; his real fight was just beginning. Medication has kept the disease somewhat in check. He had to give up boxing although admitting the roar of the crowds and sweet public adulation was something he’d come to very much enjoy.
Now Ali works toward a series of goals; winning the fight against racial bigotry, to make the world better, to make his life continue to matter. His desideratum is obvious to him now and while he clearly remembers the roar of the crowds, he is happy just remembering.
The final journey for Ali has begun. He’s doing it with style, finesse and grace, just as he’d boxed. Ali is still with us, still working for all his good reasons, still a beloved and respected hero to all people of all colors.
As an author with several books published, LC Van Savage still finds time for air time and an active community service life.
See her biography by clicking her byline (name in blue at top of the page.)
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