The Greatest Lives On

General | Jun 4, 2016 | Carlos Castillo

My hero died today.
I was raised to be a boxing fan, so that’s how Muhammad Ali got on my radar. I remember hearing my cousins assure me that George Foreman was going to beat him senseless. To them it was a fait accompli; Foreman would shut his big mouth.
I was waiting for my mom in our 1959 Chevy Impala when I heard the results on the radio. It was one of those news items the DJ would share leading into a song. Ali had not only beaten but knocked out the indestructible Foreman in eight rounds.
If you ever get down on yourself, watch the press conference in the documentary “When We Were Kings,” about the Ali-Foreman fight. Watch the scene where Ali is asking the gathered writers how many are picking Foreman to win the fight. It’s obvious few if any of those writers gave Ali an ice cube’s chance in hell of winning. Then watch how he takes that and proves them all wrong. That’s the power of the human spirit.
I never got to meet Ali, but I did meet many people who did. One guy used to come into my bookstore. He was a short, squat guy, maybe with scoliosis because he was hunched over. He was an autograph hound and a collector of sports memorabilia. He told me how he went to an event featuring Ali. Everybody was told that for the price they paid, Ali would only sign one item. The guy has a photo book on Ali, so he picks out the one he wants signed. Ali takes the book and signs it. Then he turns the page and signs another, then he turns the page and signs another. This keeps going on till the event guy sees what’s happening and starts yelling about one autograph only. Ali shared a sly smile with the guy as he moved on.
That's what I loved about Ali: he was a true man of the people. It didn’t matter where you were from or what you looked like. He had a lot more belief in humanity than I do. Isn’t it crazy to think of banning Muslims when you realize that one of America’s greatest heroes and icons was a Muslim?
But one of the main reasons I adored Ali was his humor. The guy would make me laugh. Telling Ernie Shavers his head looked like an acorn. Messing with Howard Cosell’s hairpiece. That was must-watch TV for a kid in the 1970s. Watch the “60 Minutes” interview when he cons Ed Bradley into thinking he’s asleep then scares the crap out of him. He just seemed like a fun guy to be around.
As a fighter, he was an unbelievable talent, especially since he lost his prime years when he opposed the draft. If you could earn millions of dollars (and this was in the 1960s, when a million dollars was a whole lot of money), would you stand up for your religious beliefs? Ali was going nowhere near a battlefield. The army would have had him fighting exhibitions and doing other PR work, easy duty. Ali knew this and yet he still opposed the war. Wow.
I can go on and on. When I was a junior in high school in 1980, I remember walking off the football field after losing a game to our big rival. I was bummed. Then the announcer said that Ali had retired on his stool during his fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world. This just compounded my anguish. But Ali didn’t sulk about it. Losing didn’t destroy his spirit because he had made so many friends, like me, along the way.
Ali is dead in body but not in spirit. He showed that fame and fortune only get you so far. At the end of the day, it’s the legacy of fun times, kindness and bravery that he left for the world.
That’s a real champion.

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