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Billy Reed: Muhammad Ali in twilight still inspiration to those who grew up with him

“My mother was a Baptist, and when I was growing up, she taught me all she knew about God.” — Muhammad Ali, to biographer Thomas Hauser

Here at Christmas, I am thinking about the most famous Muslim in the world. It is because he is sick and I am worried about him. A few days ago, Muhammad Ali was hospitalized with pneumonia, and that is not a trifling matter when you are almost 73 years old and already in poor health due to Parkinson’s Disease.

I last saw Ali at the Louisville-Florida State football game on Oct. 30. A guest in athletic director Tom Jurich’s suite, he never ventured on to the deck outside. Instead, surrounded by family and friends, he watched the game from inside, peering at the field through dark glasses and confined to a wheelchair.

He looked old and shriveled that night, nothing like the audacious young man I had followed since he was an amateur boxer in the late 1950s, fighting regularly on a WAVE television program called “Tomorrow’s Champions.” Even then, it didn’t take a boxing purist to sense he was special. Even then, his foot speed and eye-hand coordination were phenomenal.

I didn’t meet him personally until 1966, when he fought an exhibition in Freedom Hall against Jimmy Ellis, his childhood friend and fellow heavyweight. Unlike Ali, who had only recently renounced his Baptist upbringing and Christian name (Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.), Ellis remained a faithful Baptist, often singing in his church’s choir.

Muhammad Ali (Photo from Creative Commons)

Muhammad Ali (Photo from Creative Commons)

A year or so after I met him, Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army and was stripped of the championship he had earned in 1964 by shocking the imposing Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. It was at that point that Ali became more than a boxing champion. By standing up to the establishment and refusing to fight in a war he considered immoral, he became the champion of the poor, disenfranchised, and downtrodden around the world.

In 1974, he got the title back by upsetting George Foreman in the famed “Rope-A-Dope” fight in South Africa, lost it to the lightly regarded Leon Spinks early in 1978 in Las Vegas, and won it an unprecedented third time by whipping Spinks later that year in New Orleans.

As he was preparing for the second Spinks fight, I went to his training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., to spend a few days. Because I was the sports editor of his hometown newspaper – he always was loyal to the Louisville media – he instructed his bodyguards and handler to pretty much let me do anything I wanted.

And so it came to be that early on an August morning, before the sun came up and the night air was still misty, I met him outside the camp’s small mosque. He was wearing sweats and the heavy boots in which he did his running. I watched as he knelt on his prayer carpet and spent several private meetings praying to Allah. He was as orthodox in his ritual as he was often unorthodox in the ring.

Ali became a Muslim when he fell under the influence of a charismatic young leader who went by the name of Malcolm X. At the time they met, Malcolm belonged to the Black Muslims, led by Elijah Muhammad. When Malcolm had a falling out with Elijah and went out on his own, the young Ali was confused. Who should he believe? But that was settled when Malcolm was murdered in New York City.

Ali also eventually left the Black Muslims, but not before they had used him for political persons and taken a substantial part of his earnings. However, he never left the Muslim religion. He found something there that he could never find in the Baptist church his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, loved so dearly.

Just as he reinvented himself as a boxer when his extraordinary physical skills began to diminish, so did he reinvent himself as a symbol. The angry young man who defied the U.S. Army and preached black separatism morphed into a symbol of peace and love. It was a transformation every bit as amazing as the magic tricks and levitations he used to like to perform for friends.

I don’t know the last Christmas he spent as a Baptist, just as I don’t know if his Schwinn bicycle was a gift for Christmas or another occasion. We’re talking, of course, about the bike that was stolen from him at Louisville’s Columbia Auditorium when he was 12 years old.

As the Ali legend has it, he went to the basement of Columbia Auditorium to report the theft to policeman Joe Martin. Vowing to find the thief and beat him up, Martin said, “Well, you better learn to fight first.” And so it came to be that the youngster reported to Martin, an amateur trainer who worked out of Columbia Gym. The rest, as they say, is history.

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The word from his wife, Lonnie, and his spokespeople is that the pneumonia was caught in time to treat successfully. I certainly hope that’s the case. Although he is a far cry from the fearless and brash young leader with the flashing eyes and the message heard round the world, it’s still comforting to have him around, if for no other reason than to see if his eyes will still twinkle when you mention Liston or Foreman or Howard Cosell, his foil in the media.

I don’t think Ali is the kind of Muslim who would be offended if I wished him “Merry Christmas.” As devout a Muslim as he is, he respects people of all races, religions, and colors. He is all about love. Anybody who has ever seen him take a baby in his arms knows that. But isn’t it odd? Nobody I know practices Christian principles more than the most famous Muslim in the world.

That is something worth pondering as we prepare to celebrate Christmas.


Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby.

To read more from Billy Reed, click here.

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