Learning of the death of the Greatest Fighter of All Times, Muhammad Ali, was like someone knocking me out in the first round. I didn't see that punch coming. Like a getting sucker punched with a cross right when I was set up to defend against a left hook, I went down for the count!! And it's going to take me more than a 10-count to get over this massive blow to my body, mind and spirit.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't a fan and admirer of Muhammad Ali. I grew up a fight fan, thanks to my Dad, who used to try to box. I'd listen to the fights on the radio with him before we had TV. When we had TV I'd watch the fights with him. He had Little Golden Story Books on the life of Joe Louis, The Brown Bomber, for us to read – and I remember reading them several times as a kid. Daddy's trying his hand at boxing was long before I was born – and long before he met my mom, who did not necessarily share the same avid interest in boxing that we did.
Daddy had subscriptions to Ring Magazine, where you could read about all the great fighters – historical and contemporary. And I remember when the name Cassius Clay became a household word. I was a junior in high school when he was coming up in the ranks. By the time I entered college at Hampton Institute (University) of Virginia, he was notorious. Dad didn't like him because of his braggadocio, and I absolutely loved him. Unlike the quiet, modest nature of Joe Louis, you definitely knew when Ali was in the ring. Who can forget him and Bundini yelling: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee - you can't hit what you can't see - Rumble young man, rumble?"
|Bundini and Ali "Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee!!!" Ferdie Pacheco right of Ali|
Daddy and I used to have mock bets on different fighters. When I was at Hampton he'd call me and bet on a particular fighter. Well, in 1963 I bet on Cassius Clay (he had not yet publicly embraced the Nation of Islam or changed his name yet) against Sonny Liston. And my father laughed and said Liston would knock him out in first round – that he wouldn't know what hit him. So I foolishly countered that it would be Sonny eating the canvas.
Now of course, we Black women not only loved Ali because of his verbiage – but because he was absolutely the finest Black man in the ring ever!!! No one before or since has been as handsome as Ali – or articulate, intelligent, proud, pro-Black, brave, humorous – and could go on – but you get my drift. So the entire freshman dormitory of Virginia Cleveland Hall crowded into the main room to watch the fight that evening. We were popping popcorn and preparing for it to go the distance. Liston got in two punches. I turned my head for a brief moment to reach for some popcorn, and before I could turn back, Liston was kissing the canvass!!! We couldn't believe it. The round had just barely begun, and there he was – out cold! Daddy couldn't believe it either, but it made him a reluctant convert.
Of course the change in his name became very controversial – at the time he and Brother Malcolm X, who had recruited him into the Nation of Islam, were very close. I knew very little about the Nation back then – only what I had read and heard.
But Malcolm X had opened his eyes to some things that he had been questioning as a kid who had been raised in racist Louisville, KY.
Recruiting Ali into the Nation was a stroke of genius on Malcolm X's part. Ali was born a Capricorn on January 17, 1941. Capricorns are very special signs - they're born "old" or mature. They are hard workers and dedicated to whatever they set their minds to. And they can talk you under a table! Ali loved to talk - he would tell you what he was going to do; tell you what he was doing while he was doing it; and then tell you what he did. He had the charisma they needed to draw others into the Nation; and was highly visible and highly principled about his beliefs at the same time. With Ali there was no half stepping.
|Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali with their daughters|
We would have major campus debates about the Nation of Islam and whether or not his becoming a Muslim was real, or just something he was going through.
|Ali and Floyd Patterson "WHAT'S MY NAME!"|
But when he whipped Floyd Patterson, and kept hammering him with “What's my name! Say my name!” we knew the answer to that question – and quickly followed suit. Unfortunately, he and Malcolm had a parting of the ways after the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, when Malcolm made the statement about "the chickens coming home to roost." He was silenced, and Ali remained loyal to Elijah Muhammad.
God blessed me to meet that wonderful brother on several occasions later in my life. By then he was a hero in the Black community, the world, and of course in my family. I loved the way he would put Howard Cosell, his favorite verbal sparring partner, in his place. They were perfect together, and you knew that when you saw them it was going to be a lively, entertaining, tit-for-tat conversation, with Ali dominating the entire discourse.
|ALI AND VERBAL SPARRING PARTNER HOWARD COSELL|
Cosell would make us just mad enough to watch the entire thing. No talking head like so many of the other dry sports overviews. And we all loved “hating” Cosell. It made Ali look even greater.
Personally, Ali changed my life forever, when I heard him speak – as a Muslim – about the evils of eating pork. He depicted swine in such a graphic manner that I've never touched it ever again – by the time he finished talking about the worms, the excrement, and living in their own swill – my vivid imagination would never allow me to touch another piece of bacon, pork chop or ham sandwich.
My family was furious – both my grandparents were farmers and raised their own hogs for butchering. Here I was at the dinner table with all the bounty before me quoting Muhammad Ali. I lost a few boyfriends by declaring “Lips that touch swine will never touch mine.” Turkey bacon had not been invented yet – that was years later. Folks thought I had become a Muslim – but I hadn't. Ali just clarified for me a question I had asked my dad when I was a kid learning to cook. The rule was that you had to cook pork much longer than you did beef to be sure and kill all the worms – and I would ask my dad why are we eating it if it had worms in it. And he told me about trichinosis (
United States National Library of Medicine
The Champ, as they called him, had a training camp somewhere in Cherry Hill, NJ. My then friends and associates were always talking about going there to watch him work out. Of course that never happened. After graduating from Lincoln University, in PA in 1967, my first job was working for the City of Philadelphia as an employment development specialist. Mayor Tate's administration was in power, and Frank Rizzo was Chief of Police (yuck). Smokin' Joe Frazier was their boy wonder and native son. Tate and Rizzo brought Frazier to City Hall one day to honor him, and wanted the few African American employees in his administration to pose with him. We, being the loyal Ali fans and “friends” that we were, refused to do so. To our minds, Frazier didn't stand for the high principles that Ali did.
|THE THRILLA IN MANILA WHERE ALI TOOK BACK HIS CROWN FOR THE THIRD AND LAST TIME!|
It came close to being an out and out rebellion – though they were finally able to pursuade some of our co-workers to cooperate, the rest of us stood fast. We took the Ali - Frazier rivalry seriously and treated anybody who crossed the line as though they were traitors. So when Ali and Frazier finally met in the Thrilla in Manila - bets were flying all over the place and so were emotions. With Ali regaining his title for the third and last time, we were all to happy to put Smokin Joe out to pasture, and hopefully Ali would retire undefeated.
[NOTE: Years later I met Joe Frazier under friendlier circumstances, at Perks Fine Cuisine, a popular Harlem club and restaurant, and a favorite Black upscale hang out during the 90s. He said he and Ali had become friends since then, and communicated on a regular basis. Joe turned out to be a really nice brother.]
|Ali and Frazier in later years - Friends at last|
Black people backed Ali all the way through the US stripping him of his title, because we knew it was a racist move and meant nothing. He was still our hero – he had legitimately won the fights and he was even greater for standing against the VietNam war and the racist policies, making the supreme sacrifice. We had already been briefed in the early sixties (somewhat) by the late Malcolm X, who spoke of the war long before it became center stage in the US. We knew it was a bogus war to rescue the French, who had gotten in way over their heads in what was then called French Indo China; and were now having to deal with the consequences of real guerrilla warfare. The reason so many more Black men were being sent there than whites - many of whom were let off the hook by declaring themselves to be “Conscientious objectors" - was because of the rise of Black pride and Black power. They would not allow Ali to declare himself a conscientious objector; suspended his passport so he couldn't fight abroad, and tried to starve him to death. (They had done the same thing to Paul Robeson as well - when he stood up against them for racism). But when Ali actually took his case to the Supreme Court and WON!! – wow!! That made him even more of a giant in our eyes. He took on the US government and made them “eat it!”
Meeting Ali was the thrill of my life – and I always treasure those memories so fondly. I first met him in 1977, when my hubby, Lou Wilson and his group MANDRILL, were working on the sound track for his movie – THE GREATEST. Michael Masser had engaged them to do the soundtrack, and several of the songs. Unfortunately, the signature song, THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL, which was supposed to have been done by the group, was given to George Benson. When I say “unfortunately,” it was because the song became such a hit, it was phenomenal – and I couldn't help thinking til this day, how wonderful it would have been for them to have benefitted from it. Michael Masser, a serious dictator, but a real genius for lyrics (like Mandrill) wrote the song; and George Benson did a fantastic job. It immortalized him, even though few remember the movie from which it came. However, Mandrill recorded the Zaire Chant: ALI BOM BAYE! I understand that it is still popular in Africa. They did most of the musical scores – including the back up music during the fight scenes from the RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE which took place in Zaire.
The Greatest Remember he used the “rope-a-dope” on George Foreman and made him punch himself out by only landing blows on his elbows and gloves, while Ali relaxed against the ropes for 8 rounds? - Just watched it again - he was amazing!!!
For me, meeting Ali was like magic – like God had just opened up the heavens and smiled on me. He was friendly, fun, had a bit of prankishness about him, and loved to talk. Ali actually had a genuine twinkle in his eyes. As much as he laughed and joked around, he was also serious about being Black. His rationale for starring in his own movie was that “No one can play me, but me.” [NOTE: At the time, yours truly was not a reporter, but a “domestic Goddess. So the thought of interviewing him or taking photos was not on my radar. When I think of all the photo opps I missed – SMH]
He and Lou would joke around and do some mock sparring. As a young man, Lou, was the same age as Ali, had been motivated to try his hand at boxing, inspired by Ali. But when he experienced his first knock out, he decided that was not for him. He used to talk about how it felt as though his head was totally disengaged from his body – like a floating feeling, then BAM!! he hit the canvass – He would laugh and say, “You really do see stars, you know,” imitating Red Skelton's character, Cauliflower McPugg. And then he said he didn't feel a thing until they revived him. He laughingly told Ali he had a “glass jaw.”
The second time I met Ali was when he made a guest appearance on Diff'rent Strokes, starring Gary Coleman, Todd Bridges, Conrad Bain and Dana Plato. That's when the real prankster came out. I was working as an associate producer (scripts) for Norman Lear at Metromedia Studios in Hollywood at the time.
|Ali with Gary Coleman (l) and Todd Bridges (center) taping an episode of Diff'rent Strokes|
Ali would stand behind the cameramen and use his hands to make a sound like some kind of buzzing insect by rubbing his thumb and forefinger together. He stood just a little behind the cameraman so he couldn't see what was going on, making him think something was flying into his ear. When the cameraman raised his hand to shoo it away, Ali would straighten up and get this deadpan look on his face. The cameraman, thinking he had gotten rid of it, would go back to adjusting his camera, only to have it happen again. After about the fourth time, began to realize that he was being pranked. Ali loved pulling little things like that.
But, as I look back on that TV taping, I remember that he was having great difficulty remembering his lines and where he was supposed to stand during the shots. The show was being taped before a live audience – so some of them began to complain. He was somewhat embarrassed, and turned to them and said, “The little kid (Gary Coleman) is smarter than I am. I guess I'm going to have to start calling him the Greatest.”
|Ali and Little Gary Coleman|
To which the audience cracked up laughing and began cutting him some slack. That may have been the beginning stages of the Parkinsons, however, I don't remember seeing any physical evidence at the time.
Years later, after I had moved back to New York, I once again met Ali when he was awarded “The Children's Hero Award” by Our Children's Foundation in Harlem. Founded by my brother/friend, Sam Brown, the organization works with Black and Latino children from the community, and helps them build character, keeps them off the streets and engaged in free powerful, empowering educational programs and activities – 7 days a week, 365 days a year; 9:00AM to 9:00PM. It is one of the best programs ever for youth because they walk their talk (http://gloria-dulan-wilson.blogspot.com/2015/06/emergency-red-alert-save-our-childrens.html). One of the key things they do so well is teach the children what a true “hero” is. Someone who is setting a good example, taking positive stands, doing something positive in the community on and off the stage. Ali exemplified that description to a T. He was invited to be the guest of honor at the program to receive the award, which was designed by the children, and presented to him by the children (ranging in ages from 6 through 18) who also hosted the Ceremony themselves, under the mentorship of Sam Brown and his staff.
|Lonnie and Muhammad Ali|
Ali, who was definitely showing serious signs of Parkinsons by that time, came and accepted the award in person, much to the thrill of the kids and their parents. He spoke first in a barely audible voice, then allowed fourth wife, Lonnie Ali, made the acceptance speech for him.
The kids of Our Children's Foundation (and I) were overjoyed to have him there. I got a chance to try to demonstrate the prank I learned from him years ago in California. He looked at my hands and said they were “too smooth,” and showed me his – “Have to be rough like this,” he said in a barely audible voice. And he did the sound again in my ear. I jumped – it really does sound like a bug is buzzing near your ear. He laughed and walked off quietly with his wife. What a wonderful brother! His illness had not stopped his humor. And it had not dimmed our love for him.
So many of us have prayed for Ali's recovery and restoration from this illness over the years. You could see the puffiness in his face at the time from being more sedentary than he was accustomed to being. You wanted some sort of magic formulation to be developed that would make it so. So when Michael J. Fox, who was also suffering from Parkinson's Disease, began to talk Stem Cell as a cure, I saw it as a ray of hope, and began to do my own homework about it as well. (https://www.michaeljfox.org) However, thanks to the pharmaceutical industry, the federal government under the Bush administration blocked it; effectively cutting off anything that would get in the way of big pharma's continuously pushing pills and creating dependency. They quickly got the propaganda out there about stem cells coming from embryos – without also informing the public that patients were also capable of producing their own stem cells. It became a moral issue, instead of a ray of hope. Using the religious right wing nuts for back up, it was the cause celebre of the decade. The lie overwhelmed the truth, and the concept went against Ali's ethics. It also effectuated consternation and fear from doctors who never stepped inside a research lab in their lives, and relied heavily on pharmaceutical products. Congress backed a law that banned the use of what could have been the most effective cure for Parkinson's and a host of other debilitating diseases. Fortunately, President Obama's first act was to lift the ban and take America out of the dark ages. Fox is still working on finding a cure and has funded a research center that is working diligently to make it happen
I met his daughter, Laila Ali, briefly, before one of her first bouts in Madison Square Garden. It was the first – and the last – time I went to see women box. I had been invited by Don King, and was seated two rows from ringside.
|Boxing Impresario Don King|
The Photo below was posted in 2014 by Ali's daughter, Rasheda:
at the "I am Ali " Movie Premiere
Ali was without a doubt a man's man and a woman's ideal man at the same time. Well, at least he was mine!! When folks spoke of his having had four wives and some of the attenuating “scandals” surrounding him, I knew that deep down they were envious of this marvelous brother who could call the round he was going to knock his opponent out in and make it happen. The man who stood up to the white delusions of supremacy and let them know that they didn't make him and they couldn't break him. The man who, even through his ailment, continued to stand tall and be an example.
My condolences to Lonnie, Belinda, Laila, and the rest of the Ali family, friends and fans - as well to all of us who loved this wonderful Black man throughout all his life. Peace, Love and Blessings unto him, and to you all.
Stay Blessed &
I just saw this on my Facebook page, posted by my classmate/sister/soror/friend Carol Black of Lincoln University, showing Muhammad Ali in Ghana with then President, and Lincoln University Alumnus, the Hon. Kwame Nkrumah! Talk about reaching the world!!!