I bet a dime on Muhammad Ail. Not ten dollars. Not ten thousand. A dime. And he wasn’t Muhammad Ali at the time. He was Cassius Clay and he was fighting Sonny Liston. The big fight was a major topic of discussion on the bus ride to Hebrew School each afternoon. One of the older boys, a fifth grader, was the boxing maven and he declared Liston the winner weeks before the fight. He offered to cover any bet. I knew nothing about boxing, but I recognized intelligence and bravado. Clay amazed me. What the hell. I had a dime. I bet it. And the following week I had two dimes.
The sixties were a time of fear. The older generation was so afraid of nuclear war that they built bomb shelters, talked about it incessantly, and even had us hiding under our desks during drills. They were afraid of racial unrest. They were afraid that the war in Southeast Asia might not be so good an idea. But what they were really afraid of was change.
Muhammad Ali epitomized change. He was loud. He was Black, very Black with no interest in pretending to be White. He abandoned Christianity and embraced Islam. And in the end, he rejected the war and the values that war represented.
As a kid I wanted to understand why the adults were afraid of Ali, The Beatles, and anti-war protestors. I watched Hugh Downs, host of the Today Show, look into the camera and warn America about the new Beatles album. So I found it and listened. The police riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention energized me. And then THEY arrested Ali.
The adults played the game differently. Sure there were real patriots, like my dad and baseball great Bob Feller, who actually enlisted in the military and fought in World War II. But by the mid-sixties it was pretty much forgotten that the super patriots of the day never really served, they just played the parts of soldiers in the movies. Even Elvis did his two years in uniform. Ali’s refusal to be cannon fodder in Vietnam divided the country. You were either with him or against him. I was already with him. This sealed the deal.
We lost Ali last night. We lost the Champ.