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I don’t remember the date March 8, 1971 – but I and a whole generation of kids and young people remember the day Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier fought in the ring for the title of Heavy-Weight Boxing Champion of the world. Muhammad Ali was a titan in every way; he captured my generation’s imagination and made us questions things about our world we were told to take for granted.
Living in a suburb outside of Denver, he was the first black man to enter into our intensely racist world as a bigger-than-life idol. What made him stand out so distinctly was not the fact he was an extraordinary athlete. Boxing as a sport was hardly a favored sport among youth at the time. And the color bar had larger been abandoned in major league sports. Muhammad Ali was different, he stood for things; he said things that inspired and enraged people in equal measure. He was a fighter who lost and who returned from the ashes of defeat – that was the story of his life in an out of the ring.
I remember well trying to understand why a black American would convert to a religion we had hardly heard of, why he changed his name to something so exotic. For my parent’s generation he remained Cassius Clay – that big-mouthed troublemaker who had the audacity to speak-up and refused to stay in his place. For we young folks he was exactly the kind of figure we could identity with. He was a dominating figure, funny, confident and uninhibited. It was the controversy he generated in the things he did in life that made him our natural hero and protector.
At the time we barely aware of his politics – his calling out of America’s institutional racism and his condemnation of the Vietnam War. What we intuitively understood was Ali was person who could not be ignored. He spoke in terms of justice and righteousness; he made us question. On March 8, 1971 we all felt like fighters. Muhammad Ali taught us that we could make difference and that maybe one day we too could win.