I was supposed to be on CNN Saturday morning to continue a discussion about the woman who decided to donate her child to the Cincinnati Zoo as a plaything for Harambe. But about 30 minutes before I was supposed to log on to my Skype account, I received a polite but terse message that the “hit was canceled due to breaking news.” Since it was 5 a.m. on a weekend morning, I did what any sane person would do: went back to bed. I wasn’t even interested in what that breaking news might have been, because I had a dream I was hoping to resume, one involving Bobby Sherman, some gelato and a Mini Cooper.
When I finally woke up around 10:30, I found out what that breaking news was, because it was on every channel except the Food Network: Muhammad Ali had passed away. Of course I understood that this was very big news, because the former Cassius Clay had been an historic figure for most of my life, one who mixed triumph, controversy, arrogance and dignity. There was no way that the media was going to lose this golden opportunity to start playing tributes to the man on a continuous loop.
Don’t get me wrong. This was a consequential death, one that resonated with so many different types of Americans. In an almost “Rashomon” way, Ali represented something to everyone, and everything to some. He was “the greatest” heavyweight champion in history (to hear some say it, although there is no consensus on that). He was the young man from Louisville, Ky., who went to Rome in 1960 and snagged a gold medal. He was the American citizen who refused to fight for his country, saying he had no personal beef with the Viet Cong. He was that same American citizen who paid the price for his refusal with a three-year suspension from boxing, even while other cowardly men fled to Canada. He was the father of extraordinarily beautiful children. He was the friend of Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and even Ronald Reagan, who he endorsed for the presidency. He was a movie star, he was a poet, and he was a champion who could not escape the tenacious hooks of an illness that snatched away his physical powers but made him into a messenger of hope.
He was many things, most of them admirable, some of them not. I honor his presence in our lives.
But, and this has nothing to do with my canceled television appearance and everything to do with the fact that I am through-and-through a Philadelphian, I resent in some significant way the lionization of the man who ridiculed Joe Frazier. You might be shaking your head at my seeming pettiness, because Frazier was just one episode in a life of groundbreaking accomplishment. But I grew up loving Smokin' Joe, primarily because he was one of us. By that I do not mean that he represented me, a white girl who started her life in the city but spent most of it in a comfortable Philadelphia suburb. By that, I mean he was a man who captured humility like lightning in a bottle, and used that characteristic to teach the world a lesson that Ali, for all of his grandeur and glory, could not.
Ali, much like Donald Trump, who he resembled in bravado and self-assuredness, did not have a moment when he did not believe he truly was “the greatest.” He was his best PR man, telling the world in elegant rhyme why they — why we — were fortunate to share this earth with him. I remember watching him in black-and-white television interviews and saying to myself, “That guy really likes himself.” I had exactly the opposite reaction when I’d see Frazier shyly give a few words to a reporter but flash a genuine smile; “That guy really likes us,” I’d think. It was so clear that Frazier was a gentle giant who, through hard work and an inner city type of grit, had exceeded his natural talents. He was less gifted that Ali — other sportswriters who know these things better than me have sometimes written this — but he knew how to use what he had to the best advantage at the perfect moment. And he was formidable in his own Philly way.
That became apparent on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden, where Frazier went 15 rounds against Ali and won in a unanimous decision. The fight itself was epic, but its meaning was even more important, even to those who had absolutely no idea what was going on in the ring. Ali, who had abandoned his “slave name” years before and had refused to go to war, was a potent symbol of the left-wing, anti-war (and in some minds anti-American) contingent in the country. Frazier was, perhaps by default but also by affinity, conservative, pro-war (and in some mind pro-American). With each left hook, Frazier was sending a message that resonated with many people who considered themselves patriots, people like my parents. They loved him. Ali, on the other hand, was sending another message, one that communicated defiance toward a government that not only discriminated against his race but waged a war that he rejected on principle. In 1971, there were a lot of people who embraced that message.
Ultimately, Ali got the chance to snatch back his lost title, first in 1974, and then a year later in the epic “Thrilla in Manila.” But — and this is typical of him — he never even admitted that he’d been beaten by Frazier the first time around, blaming the loss on the “white man’s decision.” Lack of grace. Lack of respect.
Now, Ali is eulogized as a great man, and I won’t deny that he did achieve greatness. He also reconciled with Frazier, who he mercilessly taunted as a “gorilla” and implied was white America’s stooge. But I am from Philadelphia, and I cannot fully forgive Ali for the lack of respect he showed toward a good, decent man who happened to have a killer left hook. He might have been the “greatest” to some. But I’ve always saved that title for a shy fellow in a fedora.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.