Sunday, June 5, 2016

My Ali

Photo by Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images via Independent.
Boxing was on TV for free all the time in those days before Pay-Per-View—there was a lot more of it altogether, I think, and the purses were probably a lot smaller—and my dad was a fan, so we saw a lot of it. I didn't like it much, not that I realized how violent it was, but just because it didn't work for me aesthetically (unlike, especially, basketball, but Dad wouldn't turn on the TV until the last five minutes of a basketball game); but when there was only one screen in the house, if your parents had something they wanted to watch, you just watched it with them regardless of preference, maybe with a book in your lap.

I could add—Dad was a Stevenson liberal, a man who assumed he was in line with Eleanor Roosevelt and the young Hubert Humphrey, and would never display any conscious racism, but he was not incapable of showing bias when he didn't know he was showing it—the standards were a lot lower back then—and he didn't refrain from rooting for a Great White Hope, as in the trilogy of duels between Floyd Patterson and the Ingemar Johansson in which the Swede began well in 1959 and ended utterly crushed in 1961. I knew there was something wrong about his enthusiasm, though I wouldn't know why for years.

But we bonded a bit over Cassius Clay v. Sonny Liston in 1963, where I saw for the first time how dazzling the sport could look, performed properly, and his own ideas of what constitutes sports brilliance and beauty began to change as well (in later years he came to accept that women's tennis was better to watch than men's, and almost though not quite agreed that soccer existed). And when Clay became Ali (we had something in common with him, with our Joycean "slave name" Bloom that had replaced my grandfather's florid Yastreblyansky) and then began resisting the Vietnam-era draft in 1966, a couple of years before I began tentatively resisting it myself, Dad was astonishingly supportive, first to the great young boxer and eventually to me.

What I wanted to say: there's an Ali for everybody, or at least everybody who wants to live in a world of kindness and generosity. He belongs to black people first, no doubt, but he belongs to athletes and fans of all colors. There's an Ali for poets and poetry slammers, who can't deny his extraordinary verbal gifts, and an Ali for Muslims of different sorts, the angry young Elijah Muhammad adherent of 1964 and the mature Sunni of 1975 and the serene Sufist who showed up ten years ago, and an Ali for men who have learned in pain that women are not their property, and an Ali for boxers who would like to emulate his grace and quickness, and an Ali for Parkinson's sufferers who recognize his grace there, and for me Ali the draft refuser and figure of peace, the confident and kindly radical.

What an odd thing that was, huh, for somebody who became rich and famous by beating people up on television. But it was absolutely real, and changed people's lives in many improbable places. I'm very glad I had the opportunity to live in his centuries and be touched by his brilliance and goodness. Already resolving to be a better person.

Also wanted to say something like what Steve M has done, but Steve has done it.

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