By John J. Raspanti:
When the news broke, that arguably the most extraordinary person of the 20th Century was in the hospital, I felt a sense of dread.
I muttered to myself, "He can’t die,"- yet knowing that we all do-even ,"The Greatest,“ Muhammad Ali.
Ali first basked in the international spotlight when he won a gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. His name wasn’t Muhammad Ali then. It was Cassius Clay. He was brash, handsome, and charismatic.
Soon after, he turned professional, and began knocking out “all those bums,” as he called them. After he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964, to win the heavyweight championship of the world, he officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
The boxing world was outraged. Nobody did that.
Nobody except Ali. He did everything his way, inviting the critics scorn.
Even his style was wrong, according to the experts. He was a big heavyweight for his time, standing six-foot-three and weighting 210 pounds. Because of his size, he was expected to be a brawler.
Ali preferred to dance instead.
Legendary publicist Bill Caplan watched Ali spar in 1962 at the Main Street Gym in Los Angeles, Calif.
“He was so fast,” Caplan told this writer a few years ago. “I knew he was special that day in the gym. He was going backwards faster than most athletes can move forward.”
It’s unlikely Ali ever threw a body punch.
His hands were like lightening, his style as unique as his fast-talking quips.
I first noticed Ali when I was just 6, right after he defeated Liston for the first time. It impressed me that he spoke in rhymes and was always smiling. That smile was infectious. I thought he was winking at me. Not everyone agreed. In the south, Ali was hated. Racism was his greatest enemy. He fought it on a daily basis. He stood against those who disagreed with him, including the United States government.
Ali was banned from boxing from 1967-1970 for refusing to serve in the military as a conscientious objector.
He was 25 and in his prime.
After he was exonerated by a Supreme Court ruling, he returned to the ring a changed fighter. He’d lost a step. He was obviously not the same elusive “butterfly’ of the 1960’s.
But he never lost his courage.
Ali was lucky or cursed to have such a strong chin. That chin sustained many shots, including those landed by the powerful George Foreman, who Ali stopped October of ’74 to regain the heavyweight crown ten years after defeating Sonny Liston.
I hoped he would retire then, but he couldn’t. He loved being Muhammad Ali. A few years later I noticed how his speech had slowed down. It broke my heart to watch Parkinson’s disease take not only his physical strength, but his ability to talk.
But typically, Ali never complained. He remained a fighter, never giving in or giving up.
I have a love-hate relationship with boxing. I love the fighters, but hate the damage they endure for our entertainment. Ali sustained tons of punishment over the years. I believe it finally caught up with him.
Death isn’t the end for Muhammad Ali. His boxing achievements will live forever, but today I’m remembering his indelible spirit.
He truly was the most remarkable athlete of our time.