There Was No Whispering When It Came to Muhammad Ali

Inside the ring Ali revolutionized boxing and wrote the blueprint that made Floyd Mayweather, Jr. wealthy. Outside, he was even more important.

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The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had not quite seeped into all the cracks of my hometown of Macon, Ga. by 1970. My elementary school was still segregated. There was no such thing as forced busing to nudge along integration. If so, perhaps there would have been more segregated private schools cropping up around town than the handful that sprouted as a result of the legislation.

As a 10‐year‐old growing up in a largely segregated society, my life was fairly sheltered from the politics of the day. You would hear the bits and pieces of whispered adult conversations about unfair treatment. But those were always “grown‐folks’’ conversations and you were likely to get your behind smacked if you tarried long enough to eavesdrop.

There was no whispering when it came to Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay as some of my uncles insisted on calling him. They fully agreed with the character from the barbershop scene in the movie Coming to America who said, “His mama named him Clay. I’m gonna call him Clay.’’

Before Ali came along one of the most revered sports figure in my house was Joe Louis—The Brown Bomber. There was a full‐page picture of him in our family photo album. It was so prominent that for years growing up, I thought Louis was a relative. Louis was a point of pride for my grandfather’s generation. Ali was that focal point of pride for my father’s generation.

There will never be another professional athlete willing to sacrifice his career and financial future by taking a moral stance on an issue the way Ali did.

When the ban was lifted to allow Ali to return to the ring following a three‐and‐a‐half year exile, after his conscientious objector status wound its way through the U.S. courts, his first match back against Jerry Quarry landed in Atlanta.

This was my first introduction to Muhammad Ali. His story captivated me. He was a sports icon, a social, political, and racial lightning rod. In Georgia it played out in broad strokes. The segregationist Georgia governor, Lester Maddox, opposed the fight but was powerless to stop it as Atlanta mayor Sam Massell approved it. Maddox declared fight night “A Day of Mourning’’ in the state.

There was a swell of pride among my friends and family toward the brash, bold‐talking Ali, who defied convention and those who tried to render us powerless. As righteous symbols go, he was right up there with Martin Luther King, Jr.—Georgia's favorite son who was cruelly assassinated in 1968.

There was a swirl of news and excitement surrounding Ali fighting Quarry in Atlanta. Standing in the middle of all this was Ali. He seemed to be so far above it all. He became my hero after that. He lived all the righteous clichés that we’re taught—stand up for what you believe; be willing to make sacrifices for that stance and be the best that you can be. Even though he wasn’t shy about telling people about his greatness, you have to love the way that he branded himself before that became a thing.

Ali came along at a tumultuous time in American history and perhaps no other person could have harnessed all of the confluence of social and cultural changes and coalesced them like he did. He went from one of the most vilified figures in America to one of the most beloved by the time of his death at age 74 last Friday. That was one of the most amazing feats he accomplished in a life filled with them.

Part of my decision to become a sports journalist was to witness extraordinary feats and chronicle history. After more than three decades of covering events and writing about superstar athletes, I’m struck by the realization that there will never be another Muhammad Ali.

Inside the ring he revolutionized the heavyweight division and wrote the blueprint that made Floyd Mayweather, Jr. wealthy—polarization pays. Just as many people will pay to see you lose as will pay to see you win.

Outside the ring, Ali lived his principles. There will never be another professional athlete willing to sacrifice his career and financial future by taking a moral stance on an issue the way Ali did.

I had the honor and privilege to interview Ali for the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1988. The Parkinson’s, which robbed him of his loquaciousness, had not fully taken hold yet. It manifested itself in small ways. He fell asleep during part of the interview and there was a raspy nature to his voice.

Ali began flirting with [my wife], asking her how in the world she could marry someone as ugly as me when there was someone as pretty as him around.

It was an extensive interview that lasted three hours. It remains the highlight of my professional career. He was funny, insightful, poignant, entertaining, and gracious and he did magic tricks. It took every fiber of my professional being not to behave like a star‐struck fan or gush over the man who had captivated and inspired me as a 10‐year-old growing up in the segregated South.

Years after that I would run across Ali in airports around the country and he would greet me by calling me “Cincinnati.’’ It made me feel good to think that “The Greatest’’ remembered the time we spent together, even though he didn’t know my name. He had a way of making everyone who came in contact with him feel special.

My wife and I attended a function about three years after the interview and Ali was there. I introduced her to him and as we were posing for a picture, Ali began flirting with her, asking her how in the world she could marry someone as ugly as me when there was someone as pretty as him around. She giggled like a schoolgirl.

Ali touched millions of people around the world with his special brand of ambassadorship. I’m deeply saddened by his passing. He was truly a one of a kind. We will never again see another Muhammad Ali. 

Tim Smith is currently the Vice President of Communications for Haymon Boxing. He previously worked at The Atlanta Constitution, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The New York Times, and New York Daily News.

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