Muhammad Ali: My version

ali4The news of Muhammad Ali’s death seemingly caught everyone’s attention last Friday. Especially those of us, and there are many, who met him personally.

Ali touched so many lives. I was in awe of his brash confidence and exquisite boxing skills while growing up in the 1960’s. I admired that Ali was a strong and active supporter of the civil rights movement.

In my late teens, I was deeply impressed with Ali’s stand as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war in 1967. It would cost him his heavyweight title, Ali faced time in federal prison, and Ali would ultimately sacrifice an untold boxing fortune during the four years he was banished from the boxing ring. In 1971, his federal conviction for resisting the draft was overturned by an 8-0 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court.

As one Boston newspaper columnist noted, “While white men with means left for Canada to avoid Vietnam, Ali didn’t run and hide, he stood his ground and fought.”

After Ali was cleared of wrongdoing by the U.S. Supreme Court he took his first shot at regaining the heavyweight title with a fight against reigning champion Joe Frazier. Ali lost that first comeback bid to Frazier. He had his jaw broken the next year in another losing fight to heavy hitter Ken Norton.

Ali didn’t surrender. He beat champion George Forman in Zaire in 1974. In a 1975 rematch with Frazier, Ali regained the heavyweight title in the “Thrilla in Manila” 15 round boxing bout before a huge international audience in the Philippines. Ali boasted that his fight against Frazier would be a “killa and a thrilla and a chilla, when I get that gorilla in Manila.” Many boxing critics call it the greatest fight in heavyweight history. 

I admired that Ali stood as a symbol of black male pride and yet he inspired me too in the 1970’s; a young, white teen growing up in Kansas. He inspired people of all races and creeds. He was courageous in the face of adversity. He stood firm on his moral and religious beliefs. He persevered and became a transcendent figure who was globally respected and recognized. This old BBC video clip from 1971 reveals a young Ali’s personality better than any I’ve seen.  

In 1978, Muhammad Ali is pictured with daughters Laila (9 months) and Hana (2 years). (Getty Images)

In 1978, Muhammad Ali is pictured with daughters Laila (9 months) and Hana (2 years). (Getty Images)

Ali married four times. He had seven daughters and two sons. Ali supported and remained present in the lives of them all.

This is not to say Ali was perfect.He had flaws too as many, most of us, have had in our lives. The sum of Ali’s life though, I believe, outshines those flaws.

A memory highlight of my life was being invited to introduce Ali at an Islamic dinner in Dearborn, Michigan in the early 1990’s. It was the faith Ali had immersed himself in years before he was stripped of his boxing title. It was the faith that gave Ali’s life deeper personal spiritual relevance and meaning.

I was accompanied by wife Joanne Lohr McCoy and dear friend and former WKBD-TV colleague Amyre Makupson.

ali2I couldn’t have been more nervous that night. I probably gave one of the worst introductory speeches of my life. Even so, Ali could not have been more gracious. He was patient and accepting of me that night, even as Parkinson’s disease had already begun to deeply weigh on Ali’s life, changing it forever.

aliSomething else. That night Ali gave me a gift of a set of autographed boxing gloves. He said it was to remind me that we all must be willing to fight for our beliefs. I have treasured this always.

We knew the end would come sooner to Ali because of his disease. Learning of Ali’s death last Friday at age 74 still took my breath away. Watching his physical demise was heart-wrenching, yet it revealed the enduring beauty of Ali’s spiritual side and his deep faith in a power that existed far beyond the bounds of his once mighty body. There will never be another like him.

To me Ali was the personification of greatness and grace. With Ali there was always heart and hope. A bit of the hope Ali inspired in others rubbed off on me too. He was the greatest athlete of my life. Greater yet, Muhammad Ali remains a role model for me and people around the world.

About Bernard McCoy

My views are my own and not a reflection of my employer. I'm a professor of Journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I've also been a working journalist for the past 29 years. I have covered news stories in war zones, reported on human and natural disasters, presidential conventions, a presidential inauguration and the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. My career experiences include work as an award-winning documentary producer, television news reporter, photographer, producer, and anchor. I worked at WIBW-TV, Topeka, KS., KCTV, Kansas City, MO, WKBD-TV, Detroit, MI., WILX-TV, Lansing, MI. and WBNS-TV, Columbus, OH. I have also worked as a contributing reporter for The Columbus Dispatch, Associated Press, CBS, CNN, the Ohio News Network and lecture at the Kosovo Institute of Journalism and Communications. I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree in telecommunications management from Michigan State University.
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