Stan Hochman: Love Ali, but Liberty Medal?!?

Posted: July 13, 2012

WHEN THEY CHOSE Muhammad Ali to receive the 2012 Liberty Medal, who was the runner-up, Mel Gibson?

Don't howl. Have you forgotten that Gibson starred in "The Patriot," playing a farmer named Benjamin Martin who wound up leading the Colonial Militia in the American Revolution which was all about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Holy Schwarzenegger, it happens. Decades go by, the folks at the National Constitution Center either forgot, or never heard Ali turn the weeks leading up to his first fight against Joe Frazier into a nasty monologue that reeked of racism.

Called Frazier "the white man's champ." Called him an Uncle Tom. Called him ugly, too ugly to be champion. Called him ignorant. (Years later he compared Frazier to a gorilla, rhymed it with Manila, site of their third fight. And if that ain't enough to disqualify him from the Liberty Medal, then maybe they ought to rethink the criteria.)

Apologists say that was Ali being Ali, stirring the pot, selling tickets. That first fight, in 1971, sold out in less than a day. Ali and Frazier were each guaranteed $2.5 million, neither was working on a percentage of the gate.

Frazier never forgave Ali for that cruelty. The folks at the National Constitution Center apparently are more forgiving, more willing to rewrite history.

What's that you're grumbling? Free speech? You think Ali was just exercising his right to free speech? What about yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater? America was a crowded theater back then, and if Ali wasn't yelling "Fire," he was belching smoke, vicious irresponsible smoke.

Ali was a terrific fighter. Fast hands, quick feet. Unorthodox. Would lean back from the waist to avoid punches. Kept his hands low. Dangerous stuff, exciting stuff.

Bragged a lot, rhymed a lot. Forget the jive, he falls in five. Patterned himself after the prissy wrestler, Gorgeous George, who figured out that it was OK if half the people who came to see him wanted to see his blond perm rumpled, his makeup smeared, his mouth shut.

I spent a lot of time around Ali in the 30 years between 1960 and 1990. I loved most of it. He had a generous heart. He was very charitable, kind to kids. He was funny, quotable. He had more charisma than today's top 10 heavyweights, combined.

Civil-rights activist? Missed that. Anti-war martyr? Can't buy it.

Dr. Ferdie Pachecho worked in Ali's corner for a while. Then he was voted off the island. He became angry, bitter. He said that Ali had never had a serious thought in his life. It's the kind of thing that an angry, bitter person might say.

But it is not that far off the mark. The most significant thing I ever heard Ali say came on the morning after he shocked the world, beating Sonny Liston in Miami as a 7-to-1 underdog.

A gaggle of writers confronted him on a street corner. Some of the New York legends were badgering him about joining the Nation of Islam, about changing his name to Cassius X, about demeaning the title of heavyweight champion of the world.

Ali looked ‘em in the eye and said, "I don't have to be what you want me to be."

The Nation of Islam leadership was describing white folks as "blue-eyed devils" back then. Ali didn't parrot that line, but he did memorize a rant that he delivered on college campuses during his exile from boxing, simplistic stuff about angel's food cake being white and devil's food cake being black.

He did preach separatism for a long stretch, which makes the description of civil-rights activist laughable.

Anti-war martyr is another stretch. The Louisville draft board classified him 4-F in 1964 after he failed the Armed Forces qualifying test based on his writing and spelling skills. And then it reclassified him 1-A in 1966 during the escalation of the Vietnam War.

When the 10th writer called that day, a weary, frustrated Ali yelped, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong." He added later that "No Vietcong had ever called me n------."

He was convicted of draft evasion and fought it all the way to the Supreme Court, as a conscientious objector. Thurgood Marshall recused himself and the original tally was 5-3 upholding Ali's conviction.

Justice John Harlan, dying of cancer, shifted his stance and it was 4-4. And then they found that the draft appeal board had botched the process during Ali's appeal, failing to concentrate on Ali's admission that he would fight in a Muslim holy war, thus he was not opposed to all war in any form.

Jeremiah Shabazz, a leader of the Philadelphia branch of the Nation of Islam and a mentor to Ali, told biographer Tom Hauser, "Muhammad wasn't a serious student of history and politics. He never studied day-to-day current events like the thousands of white kids who opposed the war. But even though he was unsophisticated in his thinking, he knew it was a senseless, unjust war."

Muhammad Ali was a brilliant fighter, an entertainer. He is in boxing's Hall of Fame, where he belongs. It is time we stopped trying to rewrite his history to make him what we wanted him to be.

Contact Stan Hochman at stanrhoch@comcast.net.

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