Ronald and Muhammad Ali
Stone magazine says the new Mick Jagger disc is a five-out-of-five-star
event. Twenty years ago those same pages called Michael McDonald
the best soul singer since Ray Charles.
Come on. There's a few good ones on Mick's lastest CD, and Michael
McDonald has sung his share of keepers. But come on.
We Were Kings" is aces.
Hyperbole rules, then and now. Every game is a must-win struggle,
each trip down the field is a crucial situation, all the late-inning
at-bats are do-or-die. Most new movies are the one we've been waiting
for. Everybody's doing it, nobody knows the trouble I've seen, this
is the war to end all wars. You're killing me.
The biggest, the baddest, the best. The worst, the funniest, the
stupidest. The richest, the poorest, the smartest. The sexiest.
He came on the scene as Cassius Clay, 1960 Olympic Gold Medalist,
when society just plain didn't allow for a black man with a mouth.
Never mind civil rights. Black people often couldn't sit at lunch
counters, stay in hotels, drink from a fountain.
But I still recall a particular 1964 Northern Minnesota winter
day when my crotchety grandmother greeted the family, all shivering
out on her front step. We'd just arrived for a visit and grandma
was in unprecedented form giddy as she flung open the door,
laughing and dancing about.
"Cassius is the champ," grandma grinned, nearly breathless.
"He knocked out that Sonny Liston. I just love Cassius Clay."
Grandma was happy. Grandma was never happy.
I was six and dumb to boxing. Nor had grandma ever shown much prior
devotion. But by 1964, most people had already started loving or
hating the 22-year-old Louisville Lip.
There was no USA Today, no cable, no ESPN. It was NBC or CBS, period.
At 60 miles from Duluth, ABC came a few years down the road. So
mostly, grandma fell in love with Cassius Clay on the radio. And,
through no small measure of grandmotherly osmosis, so did I.
God, how self-assured he was. Sharp-witted and downright funny.
Good to his word. Innovative. Quick on his feet, in the ring or
out. Virile and undeniably handsome. A self-imposed lightning rod
for a glut of societal issues that now seem as obvious as they once
seemed edgy and extreme.
Clay: The New Yorker magazine's editor paints a mighty pretty
First came his poetic prognostics, picking the round of each foe's
demise. Then how easily he slipped into Muhammad Ali Muslim
preacher palling around with Malcolm X one day, charming the mid-afternoon
mainstream talk-show crowd or mugging with the Beatles the next.
Yanking on Howard Cosell's toupee. Gladly playing the clown, seldom
the fool. Abruptly introducing Islam to the American masses.
"I am America," he said, early on. "I am the part
you won't recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky
my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my
own. Get used to me."
Later came the war years and the rough-and-tumble reclaim-the-title
years. Finally came the too-long-in-the-ring years that ravaged
him, turning him into the man of relatively few words he is today.
But along the way he shook up the world, became one of The Ones,
went beyond hyperbole.
"I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong," he said,
"the Cong don't call me nigger."
Eventually, he made it noble to stick to your guns, instead of
taking them to Southeast Asia or absconding to Canada. He fought
his war against the U.S. of A., and ultimately won. Sort of. Because
the prime of his boxing career, of course, was lost. But he continued
to show his wit and his mettle, over and over. The world kept watch.
or chump: Is the new Will Smith flick the greatest? Or a stiff?
A few years back a survey ranked the most familiar faces on the
planet. Essentially, I recall a three-way tie for first: Santa Claus,
Ronald McDonald and Muhammad Ali.
Next time I need a dose of Ali and every so often I do
I'm likely to re-read Pulitzer-winner David Remnick's "King
of the World" or plug "When We Were Kings," Leon
Gast's Academy Award-winning documentary, back into the VCR. Or
maybe somebody'll tip me off to something new and different; Ali's
is one story they'll continue to tell and retell, long after all
of us are gone.
But I'll pass on the new Will Smith movie.
Because although Will Smith is probably just fine playing the part
of Will Smith starring in the role of Muhammad Ali, I can't imagine
a thing he could add to what grandma had said by dancing.