|Ali has just watched Sonny Liston hit the deck in 1964, making him the champ.|
We'd gone through "I am the greatest" and were entering the "I'm pretty" phase, when all of a sudden this young, handsome Louisville poet dropped "his slave name" and joined the Nation of Islam.
I knew almost nothing about Islam, except that Malcolm X, one of the most intelligent and erudite Americans, was a leader or a follower or an adherent. Something. He was also going to be killed sooner than many of us would have preferred.
Now, here was Muhammad Ali and we didn't know what to do with that. My sports editor in Asheville, Bob Terrell, wrote a nasty column condemning Ali early in 1965 because "I ain't got nothin' against them Viet Congs" and promised Ali's name would never again appear in the Asheville Citizen-Times. I remember thinking at the time, "Well, shit, there goes Ali's career. How can he survive without publicity from us?"
Terrell, like so many Southern white men at that time, simply could not abide Ali. He stood for all they abhorred: he was black, loud, boastful, anti-war, confident, intelligent and had values they simply did not understand, one of which was believing his people deserved equal rights.
He was not a womanizer. He didn't smoke or drink or drug. He was kind and thoughtful in private, quiet, some said, and even reserved. The loudmouth poet was a show meant to pump up gates at his fights, which would set records nearly every time he stepped in the ring.
My initial confusion turned to admiration and support. I never talked to Bob about my disagreement because he could have--probably wouldn't have--fired me for it. I had begun my career in August, 1964 as an 18-year-old who couldn't type, so my position was not exactly stable. But I got a lot of pleasure watching him trying to keep Ali's name out of the paper.
I don't know if Ali was the greatest boxer of all time (he was certainly the richest), but I like to compare him to another athlete whose value is far beyond the sport: Babe Ruth. Ruth and Ali were transcendent personalities who affected people in a lot of ways, mostly positive. They were both, above all, great people. The greatest? Who knows? Who cares?