J a n u a r y   2 0 0 2


Beyond hyperbole
Santa, Ronald and Muhammad Ali
by Mark Anderson

olling 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.

"When 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.

The Greatest.

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.

Modeling Clay: The New Yorker magazine's editor paints a mighty pretty picture.

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.

Champ 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.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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