Christine Flowers, 6/10/2016 [Archive]

I Cannot Fully Forgive Muhammad Ali

By Christine Flowers

In an almost Rashomon way, Muhammad Ali represented something to everyone, and everything to some.

Ali was the young man from Louisville, Ky., who went to Rome in 1960 and snagged a gold medal at the Olympics. He was the American citizen who refused to fight for his country, saying he had no personal beef with the Viet Cong; he was that same American citizen who paid the price for his refusal with a three-year suspension from boxing, even while other cowardly men fled to Canada.

He was the father of extraordinarily beautiful children. He was a movie star, a poet, and a champion who could not escape the tenacious hooks of an illness that snatched away his physical powers but made him into a messenger of hope.

He was many things, most of them admirable, some of them not. I honor his presence in our lives.

But, as a through-and-through Philadelphian, I resent in some significant way the lionization of the man who ridiculed Joe Frazier.

I grew up loving Smokin' Joe, primarily because he was one of us. I do not mean he specifically represented me, a white girl who spent most of her life in a comfortable Philadelphia suburb. I mean he was a man who captured humility like lightning in a bottle, and used that characteristic to teach the world a lesson that Ali, for all of his grandeur and glory, could not.

Ali, much like Donald Trump, whom he resembles in bravado and self-assuredness, did not have a moment when he did not believe he truly was "the greatest." He was his best PR man, telling the world in elegant rhyme why they - why we - were fortunate to share this Earth with him.

I remember watching him in black-and-white television interviews and saying to myself: That guy really likes himself. I had exactly the opposite reaction when I'd see Frazier shyly give a few words to a reporter, but flash a genuine smile: That guy really likes us.

It was so clear that Frazier was a gentle giant, who, through hard work and an inner-city type of northern grit, had exceeded his natural talents. He was less gifted that Ali, but he knew how to use what he had to the best advantage at the perfect moment. And he was formidable, in his own Philly way.

That became apparent on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, where Frazier went 15 rounds against Ali and won in a unanimous decision. The fight itself was epic, but its meaning was even more important, even to those who had absolutely no idea what was going on in the ring.

Ali, who had abandoned his "slave name" years before and had refused to go to war, was a potent symbol of the left-wing, antiwar (and in some minds anti-American) contingent in the country. Frazier was - perhaps by default but also by affinity - conservative, pro-war (and in some mind pro-American). With each left hook, Frazier sent a message that resonated with many people who considered themselves patriots,.

Ali, on the other hand, was sending another message, one that communicated defiance toward a government that not only discriminated against his race but waged a war he rejected on principle. In 1971, a lot of people embraced that message.

Ultimately, Ali got the chance to snatch back his lost title, first in 1974 and then in 1975 in the epic Thrilla in Manila. But, and this is typical of him, he never even acknowledged he'd been beaten by Frazier the first time around, blaming the loss on the "white man's decision." Lack of grace, lack of respect.

Now, Ali is eulogized as a great man, and I won't deny he did achieve greatness. He also reconciled with Frazier, whom he mercilessly taunted as a "gorilla" and implied was white America's stooge.

But I am from Philadelphia, and I cannot fully forgive Ali for the lack of respect he showed toward a good, decent man who happened to have a killer left hook. He might have been the "greatest" to some. But I've always saved that title for a shy fellow in a fedora.

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©2016 Christine Flowers. Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at cflowers1961@gmail.com.

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