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Why I Hated Muhammad Ali

It's another rainy Thursday here at the Philipsburg LaunchPad and, man, that rain is cold out there. I am not sure how many more ceiling tiles I have left to replace in that drop ceiling. Heavy rain often comes through the roof here. Fixing a hole. I do not know why a rainy day brings on a wistful stoicism. But I know good poems seem to emanate from them. Today, in such a fashion and for I don't know what reason, I was thinking back on my childhood. I grew up on The Street, that's what we called my street in Clearfield, Pa. The Street was a dead end that ran downhill, across Turnpike like a dangerous roller-coaster, until it clattered into the county fairgrounds. And on that "Street" was "A Gang." Several waves of a gang, actually, that spanned from the cool teenagers with their muscle cars at the time down to us little squirts. For whatever reason, my house seemed to be the epicenter of The Street. My gang would be in the basement at my house listening to ELO records on my record player and we would come out the cellar door at nights to carouse around. Mr. Bortot had a very good garden we would raid. Excellent cucumbers. Tomatoes so good you could eat 'em like apples. Once in a while the older boys, like Dave and Boyd (Tim Cline called him "Goiter.") McKenrick would bail our scrawny asses out if we got into too much trouble. We were street kids, and we seldom got caught. So "The Street" operated in age groups a little bit. And sometimes we were in proximity when Frog Moore would burn rubber in his Super Bee, or when they were all dipping snuff that they hid in an abandoned house nearby. 'Cause even the cool kids didn't want to get caught by their parents dipping snuff. But we were talking about Muhammed Ali. One of the older boys, maybe my brother, Chuck, got a pair of boxing gloves once and that became our summer. They were big gloves. Thinking back, like 16 ounces or something. So, like, you could get hit by 'em and they wouldn't cut you, but you could definitely get stunned. The older boys would have boxing matches in the side yard at Beauseigneur's house and man, they'd clock each other. And, of course, the older boys thought it was hilarious for us little guys to square off with these monster gloves on.

I, however, influenced by the older boys, became enamoured of boxing. I started getting The Ring magazine and reading about all the weight classes. I read about the sordid history of boxing and the greats like Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano. And at the time, the heavyweight division was full of absolute monsters. Ernie Holmes, George Forman, Smokin' Joe Frazier. The king of the hill was Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali. We were talking about Muhammad Ali. When there was a heavyweight championship fight on teevee, it was an event. I rooted against Ali every time. And I started to wonder why today. It was raining outside and I got introspective and all. And I seemed to remember the older boys arguing about Clay, I wanna say. And the only thing I can remember was one of the boys said he was a draft dodger. I hardly knew what that meant, but, man, it was bad, and it wasn't just that he was called a draft dodger, it was the way he was called a draft dodger. There was venom in the words. It referred to Vietnam, but I'd missed the '60s altogether. Vietnam did not touch me except for some images on teevee. I missed The Beatles entirely. But, I think, there was this talk around that I absorbed as an impressionable kid and I wanted Ali to lose. Somebody had to beat him. Very few ever did.

But why did I think that? I was being influenced by the people around me and I hated Muhammad Ali. I don't even know why I hated Muhammad Ali except others around me despised him. That, in microcosm, is how hatred grows. It is unthinking and unquestioning. It deals in emotional responses and is as catching as a virus. Maybe one of those older boys was repeating something his father said while watching the news, I have no way of knowing. But it affected me for a long time before I could read and research and learn about my bias. Today, I'm thinking about how that bias spread. Ali was also a target of a media that rejected him by and large. His opposition to the war in Vietnam went as viral as things could go back then. In fact, he never said the words he is now famously credited with: "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger."

I was ignorant of why I felt something. This is my rainy day lesson today. I am reminded of one of my favorite lyrics, by the band Rush, from a song called "Witch Hunt." "Quick to judge Quick to anger Slow to understand. Ignorance And Prejudice And Fear walk hand in hand."

It took me years to realize I was wrong about something I held to be true. Ali, it turns out, was a hero. A super-hero. For real. And he was arguably the finest prize-fighter of all time. I loved Joe Frazier. Smokin' Joe probably did most of the damage that affected Ali late in life. But I loved Frazier because he was against Muhammad Ali. I used to love Joe Frazier, but he never changed anything. Muhammad Ali fought much bigger fights than Joe Frazier. I used to hate Muhammad Ali.

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