Requiem For A King
On Friday, June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away. He was 74 years old. He was an Olympic and professional boxer, three times the Heavyweight Champion of the world. His professional record was 56 wins and only 6 losses, inclusive of 37 knock out wins. His time was a particular spectacular (and brutal) time in boxing. He seized claim to the title, “The Greatest,” and he was.
In 1974, Ali battled George Foreman in Zaire (now The Democratic Republic of the Congo) for the heavyweight championship of the world. Proclaimed, “The Rumble in the Jungle,” this fight is hailed as one of the greatest moments in sports, period. The movie, When We Were Kings tells this tale.
At the end of the fight, Ali, bruised, exhausted, wounded, stood victorious. An eighth round knock out of Foreman elevated Ali from just “The Greatest” to “The King.” The king of the ring and the king (in many ways) of the world.
The below YouTube video perhaps best sums up just profoundly significant Ali was from a cultural standpoint, transcending boxing. Oh, and the narrator is a nice touch as well. (Nope, not going to describe it, y’all got to watch it for yourselves.)
Now, The King is gone, passed onto the other side. There have been tributes pouring in globally, with news broadcasts taking a break (thankfully) from the presidential race to honor Ali. He was many things and for the last few decades of his life, beloved.
That was not always the case. He refused to submit to the draft, taking a public (and hugely unpopular) stance against the Vietnam War. He was actually convicted of draft evasion and it was not until the United States Supreme Court ruled Ali was, in fact, a conscientious objector that his conviction was set aside. I have the citation to the ruling below in the sources.
I was too young to remember the controversy. For some, Ali was a traitor, a trouble-maker. For others, Ali was a hero, willing to sacrifice money, fame, status, and popularity for his principles. His quote of, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. They never call me nigger,” summed up his stance.
One does not have to agree with what Ali did to respect the principle behind his actions. I like to think that had I been his age, I would have gone to fight in Vietnam. Then again, that is complete speculation on my part. After all, I had just been born and was fully engaged in defecating in my diaper during the worst of the fighting. Conversely, I might have been active in the student protests of the war. Here’s the thing, you, me, NO ONE can know what we would have done at a particular time in the past. Wish, hope, muse, rationalize and ponder all you want, you will never know.
We do know about Ali. He took a stance that was incredibly unpopular at the time. He lost millions of dollars being banned from a sport where age is as ruthless an opponent as the other guy in the ring. One can only wonder just how great he would have been had he accepted the draft, put in the minimal time and then returned to the ring much sooner than he did.
I heard a reporter yesterday say how his 92-year-old father, a crew member on a bomber in WWII, described Ali’s stance on the draft this way: “He’s brave.” Here is someone whose chance of surviving the war was incredibly low. Yet he described Ali’s position as brave. Here is someone I could easily qualify as an expert witness on courage stating Ali was brave. That works for me.
Winston Churchill, a man known for many quotes, here’s one that is appropriate for today: “Courage is the first of human qualities which guarantees all others.”
I will argue that it was from Ali’s courage sprang the other wonderful qualities of this man who made such a positive, global contribution later in his life.
As he left the ring for good, he carried with him the scars of his epic battles, with the most somber belonging to his brain. Parkinson’s Disease, almost certainly brought about by the decades of multiple, merciless blows to the skull, had come to him. It would take his life. His spirit, however, was always out of reach from its jab or hook.
He did not hide from the public his struggles. His walk was slowed, his speech slurred, slowed, whisper loud, yet he stood tall. My favorite memory of him indeed standing tall was at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. There, he was the last torch bearer, handed the flame by Olympic Champ Janet Evans.
I recall watching that ceremony. I recall the look of awe and joy on the face of Evans (who I had a bit of a crush on back during the ’88 Olympics, I should admit) as she passed him the flame. With trembling hands, he lit the cauldron. With that, the flame gave birth to the Olympic games and the re-birth of the Olympic spirit, enduring…just like Muhammad Ali.
There would be other honors befitting Ali. The below image is of his ceremony receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2005. Decades after he was a legal adversary of the U.S. Government, he was now honored by its leader. Here’s the link to the award presentation. Although Ali could not speak, I am in awe of his quiet dignity. With quivering hands, he takes time to button his jacket. It’s 4 minutes, well worth the time to watch (IMO):
And honored rightfully so. Ali’s humanitarian efforts are renowned. They are too numerous to list and I have a link in the credits below to them. If I were to sum them up in one word, it was love. He loved people. He chose to use his fame, his story, to bring people together. He took off the crown of a king and walked among the people. In turn, they carried him on their shoulders, beloved for him. He had become, “a king among peers.”
As someone whose within the “area code” of a half-century of life, I am glad (relieved actually) that things I held important in the past are not so much that way anymore. When I look back on Muhammad Ali’s life, I see someone who achieved great things and fought all comers. He relished the fight, needed it, I suppose. Then in later years, he traded the jab for the handshake, the punch for a hug, the rage for love. In doing so, I see a man who traded fame for humility and glory for service. As he said:
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
A requiem is a Mass performed for the dead. As Ali was Muslim, obviously, a Mass is not appropriate (while I’d argue prayers certainly are). Yet a requiem can also be a form of acknowledgment, be it music or prose. I hope this post captures the spirit of honoring Muhammad Ali, a man, father, husband, fighter, humanitarian and yes, citizen.
R.I.P. to the Champ, to “The Greatest.” and to a king whose throne was vacant. Vacant because rather than sit, he chose to go forth and serve. This, to me, is the purest form of nobility, truly worthy of a requiem…of love.
Be well my friends,
Author’s note: I have endeavored to properly cite to all materials, respecting copyrights and utilizing matters in the public domain and/or otherwise considered fair use. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts an want to respect the works of others. This post was originally published on my blog, “Cedo Pontis.” Please check it out if you would like, http://cedopontis.blogspot.com/2016/06/requim-for-king.html, thanks.
Sources/Citations for this post:
Opening photo, World Journal Tribune photo by Ira Rosenberg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Ali#/media/File:Muhammad_Ali_NYWTS.jpg