In the end, Ali’s decency won his biggest fight

by Gary Shelton on June 6, 2016 · 4 comments

in general

Monday, 6 a.m.

He stood above us all, proud, regal. He was someone to look up to.

I will remember Muhammad Ali in that way.

I remember his light. I will remember his bearing. I will remember his decency. Despite the disease that had stripped away his considerable physical presence, he stood tall. Men and women and looked admiringly at Ali that night. Black people and white. Christians and Muslims. Americans and foreigners. Young and old. All of us found something to smile about when it came to Ali.

I will remember him that way, too.

It was the night of July 19, 1996, almost 20 years ago. It was the

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Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in Atlanta. Parkinson's Disease already had stripped Ali of much of his physical presence – his arm hung by his side and shook, but there was no mistaking the man. He was legend, or as close as any athlete has come to it.

I was in the stadium that night, writing something about how the world always seemed to work during the Opening Ceremonies, how it was the one night that hope and commitment took the place of the pettiness of nations. For the moment, it didn't matter that there were pick-up trucks in the Opening Ceremonies. As Ali lit the flame, it mattered only that the world worked.

Not everyone agreed. Nearby, Joe Frazier – Ali's old nemisis – suggested that he would toss Ali into the flame. This was before they chose co-existence late in Frazier's life. But Frazier simply could not understand how Ali went from being reviled to revered, from villain to a man of virtue.

And now that Ali, too, has gone, perhaps it is time to discuss his greatest fight. He went from there to here, an amazing journey.

He was a draft dodger, remember, a man who would not go to Viet Nam at a time that other good men were dying there. Never mind that the Supreme Court eventually took his side. Never mind that the great players of other sports were not being asked to enlist. Still, Ali risked it all to say no to enlistment. Who else has done that?

Still, there were some who could not get on the other side of that. When Ali lost three and a half years of his career, there were plenty of people who thought that was good for a start.

Remember, however, that America was a hard place to be a black man in the 1960s. A lot of us, including Ali, needed time to grow up from that decade. A lot of us redefined ourselves. Ali could be mean. He believed in the separation of races.  As Ali once said, "A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life."

A few things happened, however. America changed the way it looked at Viet Nam. Over the years, Ali changed the way America looked at him. He became a statesman, an admired former athlete who fought against a crippling disease. Slowly, one act of compassion after another, Ali altered his persona.

There was always a likeability to Ali. A playfulness, whether he was verbally sparring with Howard Cosell, whether he was on Different Strokes, whether he was rhyming his predictions. That helped him.

More than anything, I am convinced, it was Ali's grace and common decency that led him to the path of admired athletes. He cared about the right things. He was big brother to the world, and there was nothing more comfortable than him putting his arm around it. As a young man, he had won a gold medal only to come back to second-class citizenship. He offset that by becoming a citizen of the world.

Kareem Abdul-Jabber wrote on his facebook page this week why he thought Ali was so important to so many. "To sports fans he was an unparalleled champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To athletes, he was a model of physical perfection and shrewd business acumen. To the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, he was a defiant voice against the Vietnam War and the draft. To the Muslim community, he was a pious pioneer testing America's purported religious tolerance. To the African-American community, he was a black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly."

He preached peace. Ali helped get 14 American hostages freed from Iraq. He met with Saddam Hussein, he met with the Dalai Lama, he met with Leonid Brezhnev. He won the Presidental Medal of Freedom. He worked with Special Olympics, with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. He worked to help victims of Parkinson's. He outlasted his controversy.

Of all of them, Ali seemed the most like Nelson Mandela. Mandela, too, had been a boxer as a youth. He, too, had an uncommon grace. He could speak softly, and the room would grow quiet. Like Mandela, his boxing career – while much more decorated – was just a preface to his story.

Except for that night in Atlanta, my career never really intersected with Ali's. That was always the dividing line between the older columnists and those of my generation. The older guys would tell stories late into the night of Ali's antics. The rest of us would hope there would be a time when our tape recorders would come out. For me, it never happened.

Until that night in Atlanta, where the sporting world again looked at Ali.

In some ways, the best of Ali still bears that flame. He still argues for peace, and to make the world a better place. This is how we will remember him.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Cecil DeBald June 6, 2016 at 10:06 am

Nice remembrance, Gary. I will disagree with one thing you wrote. Ali wasn’t a draft dodger. In the Vietnam war, draft dodgers went to Canada if they could, or tried to hide in this country, or overseas, or failed to register for the draft – they in fact dodged the draft, or tried to. Ali refused to be enlisted, refused to serve claiming conscientious objector status, which his draft board rejected. He specifically said he wasn’t trying to dodge the draft, and he didn’t. Small point perhaps, but what Ali did in regards to the draft he did ethically and within the law. The same cannot be said for draft dodgers and before anyone asks, I served in the Marines 1965-1986.

Cecil

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Gary Shelton June 7, 2016 at 8:25 am

Guys. A draft dodger simply dodged the draft. There were no rules. It wasn’t an organized activity.

Ali was found guilty of draft evasion, the legal definition. The Supreme Court reversed that decision.

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scott myers June 6, 2016 at 8:20 am

Ali was not a draft dodger. He faced his consequences head on. A draft dodger would be someone who fled to Canada or was able to come up with a fake case of ‘bone spurs’.

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Gary Shelton June 6, 2016 at 11:46 pm

I think that’s only one definition. I looked it up. Ali was convicted of “draft evasion.” The Supreme Court overturned it, so we’re talking semantics.

From Wikipedia:

Draft evasion is an intentional decision not to comply with the military conscription policies of one’s nation. Such practices that do not involve law breaking or which are based on conscientious objection are sometimes referred to as “draft avoidance.” Refusing to submit to the draft is considered a criminal offense in most countries where conscription is in effect.

Those who practice draft evasion are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “draft dodgers”, a term which was made popular during the Vietnam War.

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