On my bedroom wall, overlooking my bed, is a 4′ x 6′ picture of Muhammed Ali standing over a fallen Sonny Listen. It’s an iconic photo, signed by Muhammed, where he is seen grimacing over the fallen body of Sonny Listen, his face denoting fearlessness and the sense of conquering something noone thought he would be able to do. His thoughts at that moment were simply, “nobody, ever, ever, ever, tell me there isn’t anything I can’t do, because I can do anything I want, I am the greatest”. And he was.
He wasn’t the greatest boxer, he wasn’t the most powerful puncher, he wasn’t the best husband, he had multiple wives and multiple flaws, but he was without doubt, the greatest.
I was a young boy when Cassius Clay won the Olympic heavyweight gold medal, living in the heart of Brooklyn, in a pocket of Italian/Irish/Jewish families in the Flatbush area. Blacks weren’t allowed in our neighborhood. They rarely crossed over from Coney Island, because if they happened to find themselves lost in our neighborhood, gangs of whites would beat them up. Racism was a two way street, because if I found myself on the wrong side of that street, I would get beat up too. It was a charged time. To try and solve the racism issues, where black families would never move to white neighborhoods, a system called forced busing was insititued. Blacks from black neighborhoods would be bused into the white high schools. It was an unmitigated disaster. Fights broke out every day, tensions spilled out onto the streets and the subways, racial epitaphs were tossed haphazardly. As a street kid, I was always on the lookout and living in Brooklyn was like living in the jungle.
On top of the racial tensions of those times, we had the Vietnam War, and kids in my neighborhood were being drafted. I was 13 when I recognized the draft was just a few years away. And I remember going to sleep every night in fear of getting drafted. Kids in my neighborhood came home completely messed up, disillusioned, not the same. There wasn’t a Post Traumatic Dress Disorder diagnosis at the time. We just knew that they were messed up. And there was such fear and such confusion and our president seemed bizarre. It was a confusing time.
Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammed Ali, became Islam, and when he got drafted, refused to go into the armed forces. My father called him a cowardly nigger. He said that Clay just did that to avoid the war. I asked my father why we were fighting the war, and my father said because it was our duty. I hated that answer. I always hated the answer, “because I said so”. And that was a “because I said so” answer. That answer infuriated me, infuriates me still. Muhammed Ali, he hated that answer too. And, to prove how much he hated that answer, he allowed the U.S. government to take away the heavyweight title that he earned with his own sweat and blood to challenge the government to come up with a better answer. “Why should I kill the yellow man, he aint never done nothing to me”, he said. And, when nobody else was saying that, this black man in a racially charged atmosphere, had the guts and the confidence to ask the question that nobody could answer. When college kids staged a peaceful protest at Kent State University in Ohio, that bizarre President Nixon, sent in the militia and killed 4 college students who never raised a hand. They wanted an answer to, and Nixon gave it to them. For over three years he was forced to let his heavyweight title be worn by others while he fought his legal battles. When he won his case in the Supreme Court, I leapt for joy. I learned that there is never a time that I need to question my intuition in the face of greater numbers or power or authority, that if I have the faith and the belief that what I am doing is right, that I need to fight for that right. Always. Be true to yourself. Ali was the living example that you should always be true to yourself.
And, this white Jewish kid from racially charged Brooklyn, who participated in chasing black kids out of his neighborhood, who hurled racial epithets at blacks and hispanics, who carried weapons on the train in case he ended up in the wrong neighborhood, idolized a black Islamic fighter, and changed his views on the world. Muhammed’s passing brought me back to that time when I was at such a critical stage in my life, and made me realize how big of an impact he had in forging my soul and giving me the strength to do what I know is intuitively right. Thank you, Muhammed Ali. You are the greatest.
Jeffrey H. Fox, DDS