“You for Ali or Frazier?”
The question was simple. Your answer was the difference between walking away with a nod or, if things got out of hand, picking yourself up off the ground. In the weeks leading up to “The Fight of the Century” in March 1971, there was only one right answer in my neighborhood: Muhammad Ali.
Beautiful, outspoken, and defiant, Ali, who died Friday at 74, was everything we wanted to be. It wasn’t just that he fought with hands fast and strong enough to knock a grown man flat. He fought with words and ideas at a time when the world was on fire, and we were forged in its heat. We Negroes and colored folks were shedding those demeaning labels, and reveling in what it meant to be black and proud.
Years earlier, Ali had converted to Islam and abandoned his birth name, Cassius Clay. That act alone was unimaginable, especially to white Americans who preferred their Negroes quiet and apolitical with easy-to-pronounce names. In 1967, Ali was banned from the ring and stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Threatened with a five-year prison sentence, Ali flexed, and government finally flinched – the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft evasion in 1970.
Inside the ring and out, Ali was like lightning pirouetting across a still, dark sky; he was our light. Sportswriters dubbed the Kentucky-born boxer the “Louisville Lip”; he anointed himself “The Greatest,” and time and again proved the truth need not be modest. His mind was as nimble as his fists, and his verbal sparring with opponents or sportscaster Howard Cosell thrummed like jazz improvisation. You can hear the roots of hip-hop in his syncopated rhymes.
Older black folks weren’t always sure what to make of Ali’s brash confidence. It could seem haughty and might rile white people in the wrong way. More than a few times, I heard about how, a generation earlier, former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis conducted himself – soft-spoken, modest, agreeable. Joe Frazier seemed similar (he was wrongly perceived as an Uncle Tom), and we, eager to kick down doors our parents were content to pry open slowly, wanted nothing to do with him.
So we rooted for Ali as if our lives depended on it. And in a way they did, and not just because being a Frazier fan meant a whack upside the head. As young as we were, we recognized expectations to know our place, and when to hold our tongues. We saw the frustrations of our parents, the sag of their shoulders when the meanness of life got too heavy. Always, they would try to protect us, but rarely did we find any solace behind that shield.
Here was Ali, a man in love with his race, who couldn’t careless what anyone – white or black – thought about him. We adored him for it. Of course, when he lost to Frazier in the first of their three celebrated fights, we feared we might perish from heartache. Yet our affection for the way his spirit lifted us all those years ago remained evergreen.
Eventually Parkinson’s disease, which Ali battled for more than 30 years, stole his voice and his marvelous symphony of words; mainstream America only seemed willing to love Ali when he could talk no more. Still, his ailments could not fully silence him. Last year he released a statement denouncing now presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering this country. Said Ali, “We, as Muslims, have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
Whether he was facing down racism, a war he thought unjust, or a contender in the ring, Ali was charismatic, courageous and, yes, The Greatest. A flame so bright may dim, but will never go out. Muhammad Ali will burn indelibly whenever we speak without fear, embrace and celebrate our culture, and are moved, despite the consequences, to action instead of acquiescence.
Renée Graham writes regularly for the Globe. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.