Golden Gloves boxing champion Cassius Clay was 18 when he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. As Muhammad Ali 36 years later, racked by tremors from Parkinson’s disease, he lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. It was among the most emotional moments in sports history. The one-year anniversary of his death is Saturday, June 3. He was 74 when he passed.
Ali was always unpredictable and controversial. In 1964, after upsetting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Two years later, he refused to be drafted into the military on religious grounds. He was subsequently found guilty of draft evasion and deprived of his boxing titles. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overturned the conviction.
In “Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971,” veteran sports writer Leigh Montville scrutinizes Ali and those around him in those troubled years (Doubleday, $30, 368 pages). Montville recently spoke with The Bee about the boxing legend’s legacy both in and out of the ring.
Q: Generations of of Americans don’t know much about Ali.
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A: If Ali were around today and doing the things he did back then, the American population (would be outraged). Ali was like (former 49ers quarterback) Colin Kaepernick times 10, in the things he said and did.
Q: Huge national events were going on all around him.
A: Yes, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the anti-war movement, the Watergate (scandal), the Democratic Convention in 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, the “Summer of Love.” Ali was in the middle of it all, but he was outside of it. He wasn’t an active member of the anti-war movement, but was anti-war for religious reasons.
Q: Did you ever meet him?
A: I covered five of his fights after he returned to boxing. The first was in 1975 (against) Chuck Wepner. At the preliminary weigh-in, I walked into Ali’s dressing room; there was no one guarding the door. Ali was (reclining) on a rub-down table surrounded by 10 people, (including soul singer) James Brown, (jazz singer) Billy Eckstine and (comedian) Redd Foxx, who was telling the greatest dirty jokes you ever heard. He would finish a joke and Ali would say, “Tell another one.” I thought Ali was going to turn to James Brown and say, “Sing ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.’ ”
Q: What happened next?
A: I didn’t say a word. Finally, the jokes ran down and I left with my heart beating like crazy. I went to Wepner’s dressing room and he was just sitting there with his wife. I talked with him for a few minutes and left.
Q: Ali lost 3 1/2 years of his boxing career while waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision. His trainer, Angelo Dundee, later said, “He was robbed of his prime years.” Where do you stand on that?
A: It was all the drama that came from those 3 1/2 years that made him such an attraction when he came back. (If he hadn’t lost that ring time) he probably would have won some more fights, and maybe would have fought Joe Frazier when Frazier was younger and not as good as he was when Ali came back to fight him in 1971.
Q: Ali lost that fight, but went on to beat Frazier in 1974 and 1975, the latter battle billed as the Thrilla in Manila.
A: That was a battle of a divided America because some people thought (Ali) was a traitor to his country, others thought he was a warrior standing up for his religious beliefs. Ali had the fight set up that he was the black man and Frazier was the Uncle Tom, which was an aberrant way to do it. Frazier’s father was a sharecropper who had 12 children, in Beaufort, S.C. Ali had grown up as a middle-class guy in Louisville, Ken., and not in nearly the same abject circumstances.
Q: You write that after the Olympics, a consortium of white businessmen worked behind the scenes to keep Ali from falling prey to the “bad influences” that have traditionally plagued boxing.
A: They put up the money and hired trainer Angelo Dundee, and sent Ali to Miami to be with him. The mistake in that was Dundee could work with him on boxing every day, but he went home at night. Ali was left to figure things out and learn his life, and that’s when he fell in thrall with the Nation of Islam. He became a full-throated convert, which ruled his actions for the rest of his career. Later he became a Sunni Muslim and totally related to all the good things about the Muslim life.
Q: Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, which grew steadily worse.
A: The rope-a-dope was a fine strategy of tiring out the other guy by letting him beat you up, but you had to get beat up for that.
Q: In the early years of his retirement, he was like a U.S. ambassador of goodwill.
A: When he died, people talked of him like he was some great magnanimous spirit, which he was. He was sick the second half of his life, and his fourth wife managed his life. He couldn’t speak, so he never said anything controversial.
Q: James Earl Jones once called Ali “arguably the most important athletic figure of the 20th century and perhaps the most recognizable man on the planet.”
A: We’ll always be looking at Ali. He was a fascinating guy who got around.
Sting Like a Bee: Muhammad Ali vs. the United States of America, 1966-1971
By Leigh Montville
Doubleday, $30, 368 pages