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#ThrowbackThursday: The Greatest

Wings With Muhammad Ali Rotated

Athlete. Activist. Ambassador.

Heretic. Hero. Humanitarian.

So many words, none of them adequate to capture the fully three-dimensional identity of one of this country’s great contemporary role models, a role model for so many reasons.

Muhammad Ali.

He was released from the hospital last week; his 73rd birthday is Saturday. For this Throwback Thursday — also the actual birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for whom Ali’s anti-war stance was a source of inspiration and strength — it seems like a good time to remember the day The Greatest paid a visit Taos Pueblo. Wings escorted him on a personal tour of the old village.

It was, for Wings, an historic moment, this opportunity not only to meet in person one of his great role models, a man whose life and work he’d respected his entire adult life, but to introduce him to a bit of his own culture, one likewise marginalized by the outside world. They’re not far apart in age, a mere seven and a half years, but that was just enough for Ali to be firmly established as an icon of American popular culture at the time Wings was coming of age. Ali’s insistence that he be taken seriously, not merely as boxer but as a man, with all the issues of agency and autonomy and sovereignty and identity that that implies for a man of color in 1960s America . . . all of that resonated at soul level for a young Native man forced to walk in two worlds and trying to find his footing in both at a time when the machinery of war revved and howled, threatening to drown out chants of protest far outside the village walls.

It was a time marked by instability; indeed, that was perhaps its chief feature. The soil of those two worlds shook and trembled, sending tremors snaking outward beneath everyone’s feet, not least of all those of our parents’ generation. Depending on the degree of assimilation into the values and mores of the dominant culture, figures like Muhammad Ali were loved or hated; there seemed to be no middle ground.

In the household where I grew up, the man was not afforded his identity. Ironic, that, from people who had their own identities stripped and unfamiliar names hung around their necks like mug-shot placards. But in a fundamentally racist culture (and that is what America is and alway has been; make no mistake), that toxic petri dish in which we all are cultivated from conception, racism knows no ethnic or cultural bounds, and back then, it was alive and well and howling every bit as loudly as the war machine, its faithful servant.

Boxing was a nearly-lifelong source of entertainment for my parents: In the early years of their marriage, they listened to Friday Night Fights on the radio; after we kids came along, during the various years when we actually had a television, they’d watch the fights in black and white, a practice they continued, off and on, at least until the last child was out of the house. We grew up knowing the names of the major boxers — after all, our state’s largest city was famous for one of the all-time greats, Joe Louis — and we certainly knew who Muhammad Ali was shortly after he burst onto the scene. Predictably, my father rooted for whomever Ali was fighting, regardless of the frailties and foibles that fighter might have possessed.

I don’t think my father ever once called him “Muhammad Ali”; he was always “Cassius Clay,” even though he wasn’t. Ali was also called by names that, overtly, were even less complimentary, “draft dodger” being perhaps the least objectionable among them. I suspect, though, that whatever label was used, the one that was most offensive was the use of what Ali back then called his “slave name,” the one he renounced in favor of what he identified as his real name. As Indians, we know a little something about that dynamic, and the motivations that drive the practice of refusing to call people by their real names. To refuse to afford this man that most basic respect . . . I cringe at every memory. I also wonder whether it ever occurred to my father to contemplate what he shared with this man (including, very nearly, a birthday — his was January 16th, and Ali’s is January 17th), and later, a debilitating illness. I suspect not; poisoned by assimilationist values, he would have spent any spare thought on all the ways they differed, even if those ways were fewer than he liked to think.

One of the things about Muhammad Ali that enraged the older generation of the era was his refusal to be made disposable, to be converted to cannon fodder for a colonialist war. Of course, it was that refusal that made him a hero to the rest of us (among other things, of course). But to come from 1940s Louisville, to grow into a strong young Black man who would take the world stage as an athlete and (soon) celebrity, and to be willing to put it all on the line? That meant something. We all knew how the world worked. Young men of color were indeed cannon fodder, and would have been readily dispatched to the front lines, but exceptions could be and were made . . . if a man of color was deemed sufficiently important for the continued entertainment of white culture. Had Ali been willing to go quietly, he might have been afforded a spot safely out of harm’s way for the duration of his enlistment. Or not; his identity was already firmly established as “proud” and “brash” (“arrogant” is a term still much in use today, as reflected in his Wikipedia page, as are all the other code words for “uppity” and worse), and refusing to go might have saved his life.

What’s undeniable is that it nearly wrecked his boxing career. He was stripped of his title in 1967, and for the better part of the next four years, he was barred from fighting, stripped too of his boxing license. He was also thrown into that other societal maw, the “justice” system, where he would spend four years battling for his freedom, his profession, and his name. He was more fortunate than most men of color: Despite being prosecuted for draft evasion before (of course) an all-white jury, and on June 20th, 1967, being predictably convicted, and despite being fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison, he was able both to post bond and to pursue an appeal. Unlike most men of color, Black and Native alike, he was able to remain out of jail for the duration of the appellate process, and in 1971, his case at last reached the U.S. Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned. Unanimously.

It was an inspiring act, and an encouraging result. Of course, it didn’t have similar results for many of the other young men who tried to avoid killing VietNamese people in the name of colonialism and capitalism and alleged anti-Communist principle. Wings was one of the lucky ones, afforded a religious exemption grounded in his traditional spiritual practice. My brother was not (although even he was luckier than most, spending only a few months in-country). Too many came back irreparably wounded in body and spirit . . . or didn’t come back at all.

At any rate, for years, Muhammad Ali’s identity in the dominant culture revolved around controversy, indelibly stamped with white perceptions and misconceptions and all the fear and anger and attendant hatred that are inextricably intertwined with racism. And he refused to let it define him — indeed, he seemed to embrace it, turn it inside out and back on itself, to take that bundle of hate and invert it and hand it right back to the very people who would try to lay that yoke across his shoulders. He fearlessly promoted his anti-war stance, and Martin Luther King, Jr., credited Ali’s influence with giving him the courage to speak out against it prior to his assassination, another strong Black man felled by forces that feared him. It’s not lost on me that King would have been 86 years old today.

Ali became a leader in the Black Power movement, joining other athletes of the era like Olympians John Carlos and Tommie Smith in taking perilously public stands. He insisted on pursuing his career his way, refusing to be confined by borders of the land or of the mind, and brought into the living rooms of white America names they’d never heard of places they never knew existed, names like Kinshasa and Manila. He refused to be silenced by press or peer pressure, promoting himself with a fighter’s patois rendered in rap before anyone knew what to call it. He turned boxing into a strategic sport, a thinking man’s contest, melding a tactician’s intellectualism with the smarts of the street and the unleashed power of a barroom brawl, and he won. He created the Rope-A-Dope, and whether purposely or not, he trained generations of boxers yet to come, and retrained an entire sport and its acolytes in how to think when analyzing it.

Against all counsel, and in the face of an increasing number of bloody defeats, Ali continued to fight to until the end of 1981. His last fight, on December 11th of that year, ended in a loss by decision to Trevor Berbick. Three years later, he received the diagnosis that no one, boxer or otherwise, wants to hear: Parkinson’s disease. They used to call it being “punch-drunk.” Now, we know it’s not only a disease of boxers; in another bit of irony, my father developed the same illness. It’s a cruel disease, one that takes by force that which most of us take for granted. It’s testament to Ali’s tremendous strength of will that he has spent most of the more than 30 years since his initial diagnosis deliberately and forcefully engaged with the world.

That engagement has included stints as a humanitarian, and as an ambassador for an array of causes. He has made trips to places like Afghanistan, Cuba, and North Korea — ancient cultures that most Americans regard with fear, if they regard them at all, cultures displaced and subjected to attempted destruction by a world dominated by other values and priorities. Among his causes in those and other countries are battling hunger and malnutrition and improving child health and wellness. According to his Web site, “he has hand-delivered food and medical supplies to children in Cote D’Ivoire, Indonesia, Mexico, and Morocco among other countries.” He’s known for his work on child protection issues in this country, and on boxing reform, a topic on which he has testified before Congress, and he has given of himself, his time, and his financial resources to organizations that benefit children. Internationally, he’s served as an ambassador both formally and informally: a decade as the U.N.’s Messenger of Peace, for work with developing nations; a stint as Jubilee 2000’s International Ambassador, advocating for debt relief; the recipient of numerous national and international awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2005) and Amnesty International’s Lifetime Achievement award, among others too numerous to mention.

And just over a decade and a half ago, he made a visit to Taos Pueblo. It’s in an area where the Catholic Church still holds significant sway, and where priests still tout the virtues of the Golden Gloves program as a way to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. It’s an area where people still live in ways older than time, yet fully in the modern world, as well. It’s a place where everyone knows the name Muhammad Ali, and what he represents to this country and this society, and to all of us who live within those interstices and straddling those boundaries.

Wings has met many famous people over the years, and has had a number of them as clients. He’s not swayed by celebrity. But this visit . . . this was different. It was an opportunity to meet a hero, a role model; to welcome him into his culture and way of life; to thank him for a lifetime of leadership and service.

And so, on this #ThrowbackThursday, we extend honor and respect, and our wishes for a happy and blessed birthday, to The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.

~ Aji



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