“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.”
— Jimi Hendrix, musician and U.S. Army veteran
I saw Muhammad Ali twice.
Once was at CMU, during his 3½ years of forced idleness. He was wearing a suit, and gave a lecture and took questions. He spoke to a full fieldhouse. Questions were posed, and all were in regard to political positions he’d taken.
“Mr. Ali,” he would be asked, “Do you regret the price you paid for your refusal to be inducted into the Army?” He didn’t. There were questions about racial harmony/disharmony, perceptions of Muslims, and his gold medal from the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
I had a something to ask.
“Champ,” I started. He interrupted me with a loud, angry voice. “Chump? Did you just call me chump?” He formed an expression of feigned anger. I said, “I called you champ, Champ,” and went on with my question. I inquired about weightlifting in boxing training. He smiled, and said, “I’m glad you didn’t call me Chump.”
He knew I didn’t call him Chump. Ali was a showman. He went into an explanation about why he felt his hand speed would be diminished by lifting, and then shadowboxed a minute or so to demonstrate his magnificent ability to throw combinations of punches at blazing speed. His fists were a blur. Ali was a big man, but he threw punches faster than a good welterweight.
I saw him another time, at the old Olympia Stadium in Detroit. Ali fought a series of exhibitions in a benefit for Shaw College. We had ringside seats, by Rahman Ali and Coleman Young, and other notables. I seem to recall he sparred with several celebrities, tapping them lightly in the belly, and easily avoiding their amateurish punches. Then Ali fought several serious rounds with the very fine heavyweight Jimmy Young.
Young was fast, with a good jab, and excellent defensive skills. His career, when it was over, included title fights, and a Ring Magazine Fight of the Year, in which he defeated George Foreman. Ali employed Young as a sparring partner for a while, and once fought him in a televised sanctioned bout that was considered very close. Seeing these two very skilled individuals testing each other was special. Ali hung around in the ring after, taking questions and posing for photos.
Ali had a wonderful record in the ring. He missed 3½ years, from age 26 to 29, prime years, for a boxer, because he made a choice to stand up for what he believed. He could have been inducted, and almost certainly would have traveled to bases around the world and given exhibitions to soldiers. It is very likely he would have been given some time off for title fights. His conscience did not allow that, and he did what he thought was right at the time.
I did go into the military, and did fight in Vietnam, but I don’t remember having a big problem with Ali. I didn’t think he was ducking the service, like Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, who supported the war. Cheney said he “had other priorities.”
Not just Republicans, either; Bill Clinton, though he never supported the war, didn’t go. And of course, George W. Bush got his daddy to move him to the top of the list for Texas Air National Guard. W served, but still…
Ali said he objected to the war in Vietnam, and he stood by his position.