Mohammed Ali, 1942-2016
I recall watching my first television show as a kid in 1956. My dad had rented a set for the evening. He set it up in our living room, but so many neighbours came to watch, it was moved to the porch to accommodate everyone. What were we watching? A boxing match.
My dad had been an amateur boxer and loved the sport. We were to watch many matches together (my mother and sisters seemed less interested) in the years to follow, but I recall that particular world championship, when the legendary Joe Louis fell to Rocky Marciano. These memories came back this weekend with the news of the death of another boxing legend, Mohammed Ali. He did not fall to a wiry and fiery Italian as had Joe Louis; at 74, he fell to the big darkness which stalks us all.
Ali deserves to be considered the sports icon of his time. Today, stars rate themselves by their salaries and little else. Ali’s place in history is marked by his bravery, his principles, his still-unmatched skill in the ring – and by his lip! Here’s a guy who stimulated the careers of rappers everywhere with his lyrical and very edgy trash-talking.
Ali, contrary to today’s sports millionaires, used his career and his phenomenal successes not to push product but to push principles – and good sense.
Good sense was in his life’s work with public awareness campaigns about Parkinson’s Disease, the opponent he could not best. It took immense bravery for him to light the 1996 Olympic flame while obviously suffering from Parkinson’s, all with the goal of bringing awareness of his disease to the public. Behind his Parkinson’s, comes today’s campaign against sports concussions and brain trauma. Ali was one of the first to take that danger seriously, although much too late in his career.
We certainly remember him for his political actions. In this, he again showed a bravery uncharacteristic of today’s celebrities. Ali’s era was a time of bravery. Racism was still a powerful current in North American life, and the so-called Black Power Olympics of 1968 saw sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos make a physical statement against racism which was seen around the world. They lost their medals, just as Ali lost so much of his personal life and career potential for his resistance to the Vietnam War.
Do we see any of our “hockey greats” make the slightest of principled gestures like these? Aren’t they too busy selling stuff -- and selling aimless consumption? Ali (and Smith and Carlos) demonstrated that professional athletes are not brainless celebrities who can’t utter an unclichéd statement.
They wanted only to excel in their sport but found themselves standing up to the greatest power in the world. That’s bravery, or nothing is.
Ali was an American (to his shame) but he remains a model. Racism is no stranger to Canada’s past and current history. That awareness is Mohammed Ali’s real gift to us all. May his memory not rest in peace.