So Larry isn’t a fan of the late Muhammad Ali. Of course, Larry is entitled to his opinion. Ali did rub some people the wrong way during his heyday and Larry is among their ranks.
There is certainly a kernel of truth in Larry’s view that Ali’s antics were seldom seen outside professional wrestling. Indeed, Ali modeled himself on none other than Gorgeous George, the biggest draw in professional wrestling during the 1950’s who fans loved to hate. I realize such bombast isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But Ali could back up his boasts. Sometimes Ali went too far especially where it concerned Joe Frazier (which is something I noted in my obit).
I believe the crux of Larry’s objection to Ali rests with his decision to refuse the draft. There were certainly some good people who questioned Ali’s decision. Jackie Robinson was among them. “He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers in Vietnam,” said Robinson.
What troubles me with Larry’s argument is his questioning of Ali’s religious convictions. He writes, “And he ducked his duty on the basis of his new religion, which over his life he showed no evidence that he ever understood, or took seriously unless it was convenient to him to do so.”
Given that Ali spent more than 50 years of his life as a Muslim, this statement strikes me as quite unfair. I’m not sure what evidence Larry has to support such a statement. Ali has never struck me as anything but sincere where it comes to his religious practices. The fact that he spent his last decade exploring Sufism is evidence of this sincerity.
Had Ali been conscripted what good would he have done in service of a war whose mission he did not believe? Ali was a genuine conscientious objector and the local draft board in Louisville refused to take this into account. Because of his fame, I believe Ali paid a far higher price than if he were an anonymous young man. Ali was deprived of his livelihood for reasons the Louisville draft board refused to give. The Supreme Court recognized this and restored Ali’s reputation.
It’s worth noting that Joe Frazier (who Larry regards considerably higher) implored both Congress and President Nixon to allow Ali to fight. It is fair to say that Ali should have shown Frazier more gratitude and respect. But none of us are without flaws.
Let’s put it this way. If Ali was so abhorrent then why would President Reagan welcome him with open arms? Why would President Bush bestow him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom?
Now, I am about to watch Muhammad Ali’s May 1977 appearance on Johnny Carson. He was joined that evening by Peter Falk, Carl Sagan and Steve Landesberg. It would have been wonderful to have sat on a couch alongside all of them who are now beyond the sky.