As I've recounted earlier in Drawger in my June Father's day post, Ali played a big role in my life. There's the life we live and the one we imagine. In my youth and yes, as an adult I have imagined my life and my future. As a young boy, Ali was so dynamic, so photogenic and seemingly invincible that I adopted him as a father of sorts. I had one male role model growing up, my Irish Grandfather, but how would I be become cool, tough, loveable and quick-witted? Watch Ali.
I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated that my brother Dan and I shared. I cut every boxing photo out of the magazines and mounted them to cardboard. These boards covered my bedroom walls and I would lie down looking at them. I could almost draw the whole thing still. I never read as a kid but read everything about Ali.
Like all heroes, they have a shelf life. Ali began to talk of a comeback in 1979 and I read of his miraculous weight loss as the fight with the champion Larry Holmes drew near. Sports illustrated predicted an Ali victory and I was so excited. Of course he lost, and tried again a year later and again lost. His boxing career was over. Sugar Ray Leonard took up the slack as my boxing star, but he was no Ali out of the ring.
I continued to read Ali books, and I began boxing as a young teen and continued for many years. Ali and his legend lay dormant. But then as his obvious health issues progressed, Ali again transformed himself. He became the American Sphinx. Silent yet still present. The world saw a man unashamed of his infirmity and apparently not angry about it at all. He flies hundreds of times a year spreading the words of Allah and above all preaching peace.
There are so many great Ali stories. His stand against the Viet Nam war was extraordinary, his love of his face and hair and beauty, revolutionary and his great victories exhilarating.
Now, the stories I love best are the quiet moments of his life.
-Visiting a home for disabled children in Eastern Europe, he walks up to an extremely disabled little girl, her body twisted and in spasm and he kisses her on the mouth and hugs her. People there were there were moved to tears. He always sought out those who needed his love the most. His best friend is Howard Bingham and his love for Howard is rooted in Howard’s deep stutter. Ali now smiles that his friend can speak better than he could.
- The last little story is about Ali getting a human rights award at he UN several years ago. There was a huge gala in his honor and he was a bit late. There was a VIP area of dignitaries and diplomats waiting for their champ to arrive. Ali was in the kitchen, meeting the minority workers touching them, hugging them and having moments with them. He entered the hall and took his seat. People approached and as a film played of his accomplishments, Ali nodded off.
I have more humble heroes today, some are here at Drawger, and others are writers, politicians, or artists. But like first love, none can compare to the first. Also, none of you are as beautiful.
Ali will be 65 on January 17th.