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Clinton, South Carolina, Saturday, June 4, 2016, 9:58 a.m.
Everyone feels the need to write about Muhammad Ali. Everyone feels as if he has something to say or write that no one else has.
In a way, as I piddle around the house aimlessly, stirring Sweet ‘N’ Low into a coffee mug, strumming my guitar for a while, and watching the calm morning chatter of CBS This Morning, Ali’s death makes me think of my response when someone asks, “What if Jesus came back today?”
The same thing. He’d throw the moneychangers out of the temple, and they’d make Him pay.
Ali never claimed to be holy, but that’s the way he will seem in death because no one ever knows the extent of the love people have for him or her while he or she is alive.
When I first heard of Ali, he was known as Cassius Clay, and my father and the men who played poker with him in the breezeway of our house talked about him all the time. They despised him. They adored another man — I soon gathered they were both boxers — named Sonny Liston, which, in retrospect, seems absurd, now that I am no longer six years old and know that Liston was about as disreputable a man as ever walked the sporting stage or stalked the boxing ring.
It was 1964. It was the same town in which I live now. Most of those men playing poker have died. A few moved out of town, so I don’t know whether or not they have survived. If Ali didn’t outlive them all, he certainly outlived their hate.
They all loved Sonny Liston because they thought he was going to destroy that uppity Negro, Cassius Clay, and when he didn’t, that’s when they all turned on Liston, along with most of the world, and said it was all fixed.
Much has changed, but much has not.
When Cassius Clay announced that he was now Muhammad Ali, and that he had converted to Islam, the emphasis was on the Black, not the Muslim. When Ali defied the military draft, he officially became the most uppity Negro ever in the opinion of my father and his friends. If they had found a bottle — and they liked bottles — and a genie had popped out instead of a shot of bourbon, they would have wished for a white man to knock out Muhammad Ali, and if the genie had said, “Guys, that ain’t happening,” they would have wished for a black man, or a Puerto Rican, or a Sherpa guide from the Himalayas, or an alien from outer space.
Even I liked Joe Frazier, in part, because he was born in South Carolina, and kids are often by nature provincial, but my earliest memories of Ali are ones of bafflement. I couldn’t understand why people hated him so. I thought he was kind of funny, sparring with that Howard Cosell and all his big words. I never stopped admiring Frazier, a man of dogged determination who cared nothing for politics. Frazier was guilty by association. He had the misfortune of being a black man beloved by whites, and that wasn’t his fault. That was Ali’s fault, which is not to say that Ali did anything more than what would today be called boosting his brand.
If everyone had a brand like Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t abhor the term.
The world has changed. It just hasn’t gotten any better. It’s not equally wicked. It’s equivalently wicked. If Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali today, the powers that be would probably find another way to strip him of his title. The problem today would be less the Black and more the Muslim.
I almost wish Muhammad Ali was 22 again. He’d give Donald Trump his money’s worth.
I never met him, or Frazier. Once I watched Larry Holmes fight Gerry Cooney on closed circuit, but that’s because I was working at a newspaper and the promoter gave me a free ticket.
What a joke that was.
I don’t even follow boxing anymore, and the reason is disillusionment. Ali was the King of the World. He traveled it and brought all of God’s children — a footnote: Christians and Muslims worship the same God — together. He wasn’t going to become the old punch-drunk lug, greeting people at the front door of an Atlantic City casino.
Then he did. The brightest, funniest, cleverest man on the planet took too many punches, and once I saw that, I lost all interest in boxing.
I was at a Broadway play in 1978, taking a drama course that took me, in a span of a month, to every Broadway play I’ve ever seen, and it was the night Ali lost to Leon Spinks. I was watching Lynn Redgrave star in St. Joan. After the play, John Clark, Redgrave’s husband and director of the play, came out onstage at the end of the encore but before the patrons were filing out, to tell us that Ali had lost the fight.
That’s how big he was, even near the end.
The growth of my admiration for Ali perfectly accompanied the growth in my maturity, education, and understanding of the world around me.
I’m not sure whether or not Ali made the world a better place. I’m sure he tried. It was just too tall an order for a man of this earth, however wise. Or it could be that the world tumbled back into ruination because he was no longer up to keeping his finger on its pulse.
The dream was American, but the tragedy was Greek.
The Southern childhood noted above contributed to my second novel, The Intangibles.
My new novel, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, is a crime thriller.
Set in the hills of Kentucky, Crazy of Natural Causes is a fable of life’s absurdity, seen through the unique perspective of ruined coach Chance Benford.
I collected 11 short stories, each converted from a song I’ve written, and called it Longer Songs.
A pot-smoking songwriter becomes a national hero, and it’s nothing but trouble in The Audacity of Dope.
Most all my books can be found here.
SIgned copies of Forgive Us Our Trespasses, Crazy of Natural Causes, and Longer Songs are available at L&L Office Supply, 114 North Broad Street, Clinton, S.C.