New Orleans It’s not like if we had thought about it that we didn’t all know the day was coming, steadily, softly, but still, like all deaths, the passing of the great boxer, Muhammed Ali, at 74 in Arizona still surprises. In his own way Ali stood for an entire generation in all his complexity. He was a powerful warrior in the ring, a popular though polarizing figure in an inexcusably brutal and atavistic sport, strong enough to oppose the war in Vietnam and express solidarity with oppressed people, while forcing America to confront its own contradictions about race and religion. Ali also epitomized the even worse damage from life in the segregated south as Cassius Clay who reached manhood almost functionally illiterate, a poet unable to read, and eventually a fighter unable to quit who lived in the prison of relative silence over his last two decades, a silenced comic and commentator.
With any luck at all we all have our own personal highlight reels at the intersection of our lives and popular culture, our stories in the big narratives of our times. Ali is a star in one of mine. I only had one request for my thirtieth birthday, a seat anywhere to see Ali fight then heavyweight champion, the 25-year old Leon Spinks in the Superdome. Though I can’t explain exactly now, I somehow cared that Ali had a chance to fight for the crown for a third time, and I wanted to be in New Orleans when he gave it his best shot. It was political and it was personal, and I wanted to be a small piece of history being made, one way or another, in September 1978, and was ecstatic when Ali, giving up more than ten years to Spinks, walked away with the championship and what most of us in the crowd hoped was the privilege of our witnessing his last fight.
Ali will always be part of my personal highlight reel. He’s part of that separate mental list we all need to make that exists in some far galaxy outside of our life’s work and the passion we hold sacred for our family and closest friends. It orbits in the background almost outside of our consciousness, but helps quietly define us as people and as individuals privileged to draw breath in this wild world. I’ve often quoted the moving “Tears of Death” speech by Rutger Hauer in the 1982 classic movie, The Blade Runner, when he says,
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears…in…rain. Time to die.
“Off the shoulder of Orion,” I saw Ali win his third championship in the Superdome, the last fight I ever watched. I’ve seen lots of other things over that shoulder as well. I saw James Brown play the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, I saw Bob Marley and the Wailers at the Warehouse on Tchopitoulas, I saw Jimi Hendrix at City Park Stadium, I saw Eric Clapton and the Cream at the East Village Theater, and I saw Bob Dylan in Memphis, no longer stuck in Nashville. But, in Nashville I once looked out the window of an airplane at Johnny Cash standing by his limo talking to his driver parked on the runway before he boarded the plane and sat in the front. Chuck Yaeger, the “right stuff” test pilot, once sat behind me on a flight between San Antonio and New Mexico. I saw Martin Luther King speak in front of the United Nations at the Spring Mobilization Against the War on April 4, 1967, I marched on the Pentagon on October 21st of the same year, I saw George Wiley and Benjamin Spock speak on the NWRO anniversary in June 1969, and first met Cesar Chavez with Wiley in Washington in June 1970, talked to Bill Clinton with his feet propped up on my desk, and ate lunch with Hillary Rodham when she first came to Little Rock, and life goes on and on.
I could go on and on, and I hope to do so. Somewhere Ali and thousands of others will steadfastly always live in my personal highlight reel. He mattered. We all do. We all have that reel somewhere in the sparks of our lives, and need to keep those embers burning and those stars shining.