Is it just me? Am I the only one not falling all over himself to quickly deify Muhammad Ali at his death? I do know that a lot of what we are seeing and hearing these days is because of what we have become as a worldwide audience being fed 24/7 news and entertainment news as each TV station tries to out-Ali the others. Today, every statement, action or death of an icon is magnified in an effort to make the news as large as the larger-than-life personality.
Now before you call me heartless, or worse, hear me out about the self-proclaimed “The Greatest.”
I am not old enough to remember when the pre-Muslim Cassius Clay defeated the favorite Sonny Liston in 1964. I do remember the fights Ali had with Joe Frazier, and along with some of my friends in high school, we rooted for Smokin’ Joe, not just because he was a great fighter, but because he was also, it seemed, a mentsch, a good and decent guy, especially compared to the brash, big-mouthed, troublemaker, Muhammad Ali.
Now pounding your opponent into oblivion is not necessarily the ways of a gentleman’s sport, but to those of us being raised with Judaism as the center of our universe, and even more important, our being in a yeshiva world, aside from one kid who loved Ali, the kids into sports preferred Joe Frazier.
That would make sense of course. We were lectured day in and day out to have Derech Eretz, or what others might call proper Middot, i.e., good manners, Ali could not be our idol. We were taught by our rabbis and our parents that there could be no Torah and all that comes with it of course, without respect for authority, and certainly there could be no Torah without respect for other people’s feelings.
My yeshiva was far from perfect believe me, a holier-than-thou hypocrisy at times being the rule of the day, but the majority of us did learn to keep our inclinations-to-hurt in check as we navigated through the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch and the Talmud. Not all, but most of us did our best to not denigrate or embarrass or humiliate others.
And guess what? Here comes this guy Muhammad Ali. He was the exact opposite of what we were learning. This gladiator could not just get into the ring and let his fists do the job. He called his opponents dumb. He called them ugly. He called them smelly. He called them bums. He even played the race card before fighting Frazier, also African American, who apparently wasn’t black enough for Ali.
Ali couldn’t shut up, belittling the other pugilists and even according to some, in one match before he battled Frazier, cruelly prolonging the punishment he was dishing out to a challenger who had the chutzpah to give the lip back.
As kids, we didn’t see that there was a strategy, perhaps even brilliance to what Ali would do to his opponents before the fight. Or to promote the fights with his big mouth. To us, he was nasty, and also one who had the gall to refuse his government’s call to service. That was another thing, by the way, his refusing to be drafted. It may have endeared him to some, but we didn’t care for it.
Fast forward past the boxing career, and a now cultural icon and very persuasive Muhammad Ali has gone from using his bullhorn mouth to bash competitors, to instead bash Israel and Zionism. Yes, he was a Muslim, and perhaps it was expected that he would take up the Palestinian cause, but he went further than just giving support.
The words he used were not just anti-Israel but they were downright anti-Semitic, and they did damage. He railed against Zionist control of the United States and the world. I didn’t care for the boxer when he boxed and I cared even less for him when he hung the gloves up.
Still, as Parkinson’s disease started taking its toll on Ali’s body, there came a transformation. In my opinion, the former boxer became loved by many, even detractors, not just because of his past accomplishments, and they were prescient, impressive, even important, especially when it came to civil rights and his giving voice to his people. But also because he could no longer use words to cut others down – a sad byproduct of all the punches to the head. He did turn less radical and less strident, showing he would have stopped the vitriol anyway.
Ali became an ambassador of good will and more, one who represented his country in positive ways, and one who helped put a debilitating illness on the map. And I credit him for his good deeds in the latter part of his life. One of Ali’s daughter marrying a Jew may have helped temper Ali’s anti-Jewish thoughts. And in 2002, he appealed to Daniel Pearl’s Islamic terrorist kidnappers to not harm the journalist and to instead set him free.
So where am I with this Ali thing?
I felt real sadness when Robin Williams, a talent who did many good deeds, succumbed to his demons and left us. We can all relate to having demons in a way — although many cannot admit it. And as we battle life’s daily tests, we hope for patience and understanding and not condemnation. So it was easy for me to mourn Williams; I identified with him in many ways. And there were no anti-US or anti-Israel words or actions from Williams. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact.
My feelings about Muhammad Ali, however, are split. I related better to the older Ali rather than the younger one. I am not tearing my hair out and channel surfing seeking every report on the fighter’s life, but I am also not shrugging my shoulders in a ho hum way. As I think about him now, I do see meaning.
I am glad for what Muhammad Ali became and how he handled and publicized a terrible disease with grace. That is how I prefer to remember him.