Ali touched many people in Boston
Darnell Williams grew up with Muhammad Ali: He remembers crowding a tiny black-and-white TV set when he was 12 years old to see the legendary boxer fight and later watching Ali’s historic battle with the government over his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam War.
Today, a photograph of Ali with his fists raised in victory hangs on the wall of Williams’s Roxbury home, alongside other greats: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and Nelson Mandela.
“He changed me to be courageous,” Williams, chief executive at the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said on Saturday. “You hold your head up and try to do what you think is the right thing to do, regardless of the winds of popularity, you make your stand.”
Ali died Friday in Phoenix at the age of 74. He had long suffered from Parkinson’s, which was understood to be a consequence of his boxing career.
Around Boston and beyond, people whose lives Ali had touched — either from afar, as a larger-than-life world heavyweight champion, or personally, as a gentle and eloquent man deeply committed to his principles — remembered him Saturday.
“He was just a monumental figure, and he’s really, I think in many ways, changed the perception of boxing, of religion, of the responsibilities of athletes,” said Boston attorney Jonathan Shapiro, who represented Ali before the Supreme Court after he refused induction into the draft in 1967 as a conscientious objector.
The Supreme Court unanimously overturned his conviction in 1971, but by then Ali had had his championship and boxing license taken away, and he lost more than three years in the ring.
“He had to take a lot of criticism, people called him a coward, called him un-American,” said Shapiro, who worked for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at the time. “All because of his very steadfast belief in the principles which he was fighting for. Those principles really are the principles that are the bedrock of our Constitution.”
Inside the sleek Seaport gym EveryBodyFights by George Foreman III on Saturday morning, athletes gathered to pay homage to Ali with their fists and sweat. Gym owner George Foreman III is the son of two-time world heavyweight champion George Foreman, who famously lost to Ali in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
The younger Foreman said his father and Ali became close after they stopped competing and video-chatted frequently.
“They’ve had a love affair with each other,” said Foreman, who met Ali twice: once as a 4-year-old and once in 2012. “They would FaceTime back and forth, laughing, joking, gossiping like old men.”
Foreman followed in his father’s footsteps and took up professional boxing, but in the ring, he said, Ali’s influence flashed.
“He was beautiful. I’ve watched every single one of his fights,” said Foreman. “None of us could fight like him in a real fight, but we all in the gym, when no one’s looking, we all try to imitate him. Ask any boxer that. They’re lying if they tell you they don’t.”
For Kevin Cobbs, 31, who was at EveryBodyFights Saturday morning to perform as a deejay, Ali is inextricably tied to boxing, which was responsible for Cobb’s own transformation from a “fighter” to a boxer.
“If I didn’t have this, I wouldn’t have a place to stay, food in my mouth, clothes on my back,” said Cobbs, who is now a professional boxer. “Boxing really is my life. And Ali is a part of that.”
Ali spent time in Massachusetts, visiting Springfield periodically and training for his rematch with Sonny Liston, first in Boston and then Chicopee.
While getting ready to face Liston for the second time in the fall of 1964, Ali visited the Industrial School for Crippled Children, which was across from his training facility at the Boston Arena, now Matthews Arena, on St. Botolph Street.
Jim Tanner, 63, a former student who now teaches at the school, said word spread quickly that the boxer was touring the building with actor and comedian Stepin Fetchit.
A photographer captured Ali in a second-grade classroom where he met with students dressed in Halloween costumes.
“He got down to their level. He knelt down and was bending over, looking into the little kids’ eyes,” said Tanner, who watched the scene unfold from a hallway. “I remember him being very moved. He had tears in his eyes. He was very at ease with the kids.”
While Ali visited with the children, Tanner said, a crowd gathered outside the school, which is now known as the Cotting School and is located in Lexington.
“A lot of people were waiting for him to come out of the building,” Tanner said. “People had really distinct opinions about Cassius Clay. It was sort of mind-blowing.”
The same year he visited the school, Ali joined the Nation of Islam, which advocated political, social, and economic independence for blacks, but he later became a Sunni Muslim, professing a message of universal brotherhood. Throughout, he was an outspoken critic of racism and social injustice.
Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, spent his childhood in India, and as a young boy, he knew two things about Ali: “He was a boxer, and he was fighting for truth and justice.”
Ali, he said, was a role model for Muslims.
“The journey he eventually took: He went from being in the Nation, to then joining Islam, which is accepting and loving all people, while being critical of systemic problems,” he said. “It’s prophetic.”
At the Islamic Society on Saturday, several young people said Ali was instrumental in introducing them to their faith.
“I didn’t know any Muslims growing up. My first exposure to Islam came through people like Muhammad Ali,” said Jonathan Larkin, 32. “He ultimately brought Islam to this white kid from New Hampshire.”
Tributes to Ali cropped up even at the state Democratic convention in Lowell on Saturday morning. US Senator Edward J. Markey brought party activists to their feet with a tribute near the end of his address.
“Muhammad Ali fought for civil rights. Muhammad Ali fought for human rights. He fought for peace. He was never satisfied because there is always more work to do,” Markey said.
US Senator Elizabeth Warren called Ali “a man who fought beautifully and powerfully, not only with his fists but also with his words.”
Ali’s enormous talent and charisma gained him fame the world over, but those who saw him out of the ring and away from the cameras remembered the small, unremarked moments of sweetness.
James “J.B.” Bradley, 92, a photographer and former videographer for WWLP-22 in Chicopee, chronicled Ali’s time in Springfield during the 1960s, when Ali stayed in an apartment building on Union Street. The boxer often visited the former Rialto Skating Rink, where he lavished attention on children who gathered there.
In one photograph from the skating rink, Bradley captured Ali holding a young boy in his arms as he kissed the child on the cheek.
“He was just a regular, everyday fella,” Bradley said. “He lived like a hometown boy.”