Indeed. And that’s the way it was when Muhammad Ali was in his prime. Sportswriters and boxing historians will continue to debate whether he actually was “the king of the ring” or “the greatest of all time” but one would have to be visually impaired to rightfully challenge Ali’s persistent, albeit boastful claim that he was “pretty”. He simply was. In fact, in my personal opinion, he was the most perfect specimen of gorgeous male humanity ever created. Breathtakingly handsome, 6’ 3” tall, and 235 pounds of flawlessly sculpted muscle and brawn in perfect symmetry. An Adonis for the modern age. This is one aspect of his public persona that was rarely, if understandably ever mentioned by sportswriters of the time.
EXHIBIT-A: Undeniable physical perfection. A perfectly balanced physique. A perfect V-shaped torso. A veritable blueprint for the archetypical male human form with no over-sized biceps and no skinny calves.
At the risk of redundancy, the man was simply gorgeous. A veritable feast for any discerning female eye of any age. The image of Muhammad Ali entering a boxing arena was absolutely stunning. Making his entrance, luminous and resplendent in a white terrycloth robe, fiercely radiating machismo and self-confidence, surrounded by and towering over his devoted cornermen, he would climb into the ring and immediately go to work. In an ever so brief warm-up to the bout, he often brought the waiting crowd to its feet with some dazzling fancy footwork and quick jabs in the air.
These were the days prior to cable TV and pay-per-view. Closed-circuit television was the norm, local movie theaters were the venue, and attending an Ali fight was a social and cultural event. Outrageously dressed Ali supporters and boxing fans would line up for blocks to enter theaters. Then the parade would begin. The local glitterati and neighborhood stars came out for their guy. Seeing and being seen. In the city of Cleveland where I lived at the time, tickets to one of these fights often sold out within days. But luckily for me, my brother, Winston Willis, an Eastside businessman had local connections and was able to procure the highly coveted tickets for his employees and family and friends.
My Personal Connection with Ali
I first became aware of him as Cassius Clay when I was entering my sophomore year of high school. When he won the light-heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics. A couple of years later, when he emerged as “The Louisville Lip” with a slew of pro-fight wins under his belt to back up his bombast, a life-long devotion began. Unlike most of my classmates and the nuns at my all-girls’ Catholic high school in Detroit, I was not taken aback by his brash braggadocio. To the contrary, I found him refreshing and inspiring. Unlike most girls my age, I was somewhat familiar with the ins and outs of the boxing profession. My father had been an amateur boxer as a young man, and my family regularly watched the Friday night fights on TV together as he provided his own commentary and shared stories of his experiences as a sparring partner for some of the greats.
Several years later, after I had married and settled in Cleveland, the date of February 25, 1964, would connect me with Muhammad Ali forever. On that very morning, my doctor had confirmed my first pregnancy. Later that evening in a downtown Cleveland movie theater, my then-husband and I watched the closed-circuit television broadcast of the Liston vs. Clay fight for the heavyweight championship. I screamed along in amazement with hundreds of other fight fans as 22-year-old Cassius Clay (as he was known then) danced and moved in his methodical “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, style, shocking the world and the odds-makers by dethroning Sonny Liston in a seventh-round technical knockout. Who’s to say that my son Eric, in utero at the time, and now 54 years old and a life-long Ali fan, wasn’t also listening to that fight?
My one in-person encounter with Muhammad Ali occurred in March of 1975 at his training headquarters near Cleveland, in Richfield Township. He was preparing for the Chuck Wepner fight, which the promoters billed as a “Give the White Guy a Break” presentation, and which was also the impetus for Sylvester Stallone’s creation of the Rocky character.
There was excitement about Ali’s presence in Cleveland all over the block. Especially when Winston hosted Ali and his entourage and took them on a walking tour of the businesses. Ali and Winston had met and become acquainted several years earlier when Ali reportedly said to Winston:
“I been hearing so much about this 105th and Euclid place, I couldn’t believe it. So, I had to come and see it for myself.”
During the large group’s walk around of the area, my brother carefully and strategically avoided my work areas for fear of embarrassment. Having witnessed my reaction to Ali in the past, he wasn’t about to risk triggering another episode. However, earlier that morning I had the good fortune of being introduced to Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer and cornerman, when he came into the New Orleans Restaurant for breakfast. So, when I arrived at the training camp, Mr. Dundee was engagingly instrumental in escorting me over to the ring where he introduced me to Ali.
I will admit here that for the first time ever, I used my purported ‘Winston Willis’ sister’ leverage to gain entry into the training camp. I had taken the day off from work and driven to the Richfield, Ohio site where Ali was training. During a break in his routine, after one of his trainers yelled: “Time!”, Ali climbed down out of the ring and approached several of his waiting fans. His trainer, Angelo Dundee escorted me over to him. Ali glanced down at me and said:
“And who is this fine Sista?” And Dundee responded: “This is Winston Willis’ sister.”
When Muhammad Ali moved closer to me, I was so struck by his unimaginable gorgeousness, I could barely speak. The sight of Ali up-close-and-personal literally stunned me into silence for a few moments. But with my heart racing, as he wrapped me in a friendly embrace, I somehow managed to say something that made him smile, look directly into my eyes, and shake my hand. Whatever I said is now buried somewhere in the dark and aging recesses of my mind. But the treasured memory of that meeting is mine forever.
Coming Full Circle From February 25, 1964
In addition, my son, Eric who is now a successful artist and for all intents and purposes, a Muhammad Ali scholar, had a similar pleasure, meeting Ali in Los Angeles several years ago. During that meeting, Eric had the opportunity to present his idol with a portrait that he had painted of him.
In his day, Muhammad Ali was quite possibly the most famous man on earth. Virtually every moment of his existence has been photographed and recorded, whether by supporters and fans or critics. But Ali is much more than a boxer and three-time heavyweight champion. During the 1960’s he was a unique symbol and a revolutionary figure whose refusal to conform to white society’s expectations demonstrated to young Black people of our generation that there was another way to be. He was a force of nature. A young Black man who had invented himself out of his own imagination at just the right time.
The Glory Days
These were troubled times in the 1960s and 1970s America. The nation was awash in social unrest, civil rights and anti-war demonstrations; political assassinations; and riots. Among Black people, there existed a paradoxical scuffle in the pursuit of social change. From stoic, non-violent resistance and a multi-racial civil rights movement to proud, stentorian cries for “Black Power!” and “Burn, Baby, Burn!” And young Cassius from Louisville Kentucky was one of the loudest voices amid the turmoil.
He was only 22 years-old when he was catapulted to international fame after defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship and he maintained his status of king of the division from 1964 to 1981. In addition to being a tremendously gifted athlete, he was also cocky, verbally flamboyant, bombastic and boastful. All things considered, however, he had the boxing skills to back up his claims. His professional boxing record stands on its own and has been well documented. Three-time heavyweight champion of the world (1964–1970, 1974–1978, 1978–1979), he single-handedly dominated the division for nearly two decades. With his tremendous talent and boxing skills, as well as his innate ability to out-think and outsmart his opponents, the lethal combination of his furious jab, reflexes and superior hand speed, and hand-foot coordination, led many seasoned observers to marvel at his “lightning-fast hands and pair of legs that moved around the ring like a ballet dancer.”
In addition to being a uniquely gifted and extraordinary talent in the ring, Muhammad Ali was also a courageous man with a strong moral compass and tremendous racial pride, and he inspired many young people of our generation. So, for anyone whose first glimpse of him may have been the footage from the 1996 Summer Olympics when he lit the Olympic torch — know this: The younger version of Muhammad Ali stood his ground and created a new kind of excitement in a generation of young Americans during very turbulent times in this country.
Standing his ground and refusing the draft.
In 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali stood alone. Refusing to be drafted, citing religious and conscientious objector reasons, he was convicted, stripped of his title and passport, vilified in the press, and refused a boxing license in nearly every state in the country. Thrust into a three-year exile from boxing with a new wife and a baby on the way, he was reduced to making speeches on college campuses and similar venues simply to earn a living. Making a mere fraction of what he would’ve been earning in the ring.
“I am not allowed to work in America and I’m not allowed to leave America. I’m just about broke.”
But he wisely appealed his conviction to the United States Supreme Court, in Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971). And on June 28, 1971, the High Court’s final decision was a unanimous ruling, 8–0, in favor of Ali. At the time, this case set a precedent in conscientious objector cases. After the decision was announced, Ali was asked whether he intended to recover damages from the three-year exile from boxing, during which time he was not allowed to earn a living at his chosen profession.
“No. They only did what they thought was right at the time.” he said. “I did what I thought was right. That was all. I can’t condemn them for doing what they think was right,”
My Absolute Favorite Ali Fight: Foreman vs. Ali — The Rumble in the Jungle — From Kinshasa, Zaire on October 30, 1974, at 4:00 a.m.
Ten years earlier, when he first won the championship in 1964, he shouted: “I shook up the world!” And on that day, he most certainly did. But one could also say that he changed the world.
And he definitely was “pretty”.