August 18, 2021
Muhammad Ali from Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon premieres on WTTW Sunday, September 19 at 7:00 pm and continues nightly at 8:00 pm through Wednesday, September 22. Explore our companion website: wttw.com/ali
When I was young, my dad had a poster of the storied 1967 meeting of Muhammad Ali with other prominent Black athletes in Cleveland after he refused to join the military despite being drafted. My dad would talk about his favorite athletes, and it was always the people in that photograph: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Ali. They were all symbols, Ali especially, of what it meant to be a strong Black man. So of course my favorite athletes as a kid were the same people, even though I never saw Jim Brown play a game, even on TV.
But I was fortunate enough to get to see Ali, even though it was later in his life and career. The one time I saw him in person, I was around eighteen or nineteen years old. This was probably 1988 or so. A couple of buddies and I went to Midway Mall in Elyria, Ohio to see Ali speak. We were relatively close to the stage. Ali looked straight at me, put up his fist, and exclaimed, “You look like Frazier! You look like Joe Frazier!” That was the joke all through college with my friends, who played football with me: “You look like Frazier!”
When I was younger, my brothers, friends, and I wanted to be Ali, not Frazier. Our backyard in Oberlin, Ohio had this almost perfect square space between a tree, a pole, and a corner of the garage where we would create a makeshift boxing ring. We would imitate the boxers of the time, and we had to take turns being Ali because whoever got to be him always won. They would get to wear a championship belt that we made out of paper.
I didn’t actually get to see Ali win very much, though. There are three fights that I can remember vividly. We stayed up late to watch his first fight against Leon Spinks, in 1978. Ali was such an overwhelming favorite, and we just knew he was going to win. He took a pounding, but he went the full fifteen rounds. When he lost, my brothers and I were in tears, because he was the greatest…and he got hammered.
Later that year, we were jumping up and down when he beat Spinks in a rematch. The world was back in order. We just wanted Ali to retire after that. But then he decided to fight Larry Holmes, and lost. We watched a childhood hero fall. Although we knew Ali was bigger than boxing, he was a still a sports hero to us. As a kid, to see him lose was very hard.
But my dad took a lesson from Ali and those fights that I’ll never forget: he would always say that Ali never quit, even when he was getting punished. When Ali fought, he would never sit down. A lot of boxers would sit on the stool when they went to the corner, but he would stand up the entire time.
He carried that doggedness out of the ring into his life, too. He stood up for what he believed in, and was willing to risk it all for that. He was unapologetically Black, during a time when—just like today—it could be difficult to be an adult Black male, to walk through these two worlds and not worry about offending anyone, or having someone be afraid, or see you as that angry person.
I think most Black men see a piece of Ali in themselves, including a bit of the fear. I have a son and a daughter. My son is now a senior in high school. As he was growing up, we taught him to be confident, speak his mind, stick up for himself. When he was a small kid, that was okay, because he wasn’t seen as a threat. But he’s now six feet tall, and he’s bigger. You start to fear that what you taught him could cause him harm. I think for all of us—for Black people in general—we want to be like Ali, in the sense that we speak our mind, no matter what. But then we also know what the ramifications can be. It might mean not just losing everything; it could mean losing your life.
Ali changed and grew over the course of his life, and that’s one of the things that I particularly admire about him. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, in Louisville, Kentucky, and so he saw white people as one way. The world was Black and white.
But as he traveled and met new people, he grew. He became a better person because he was willing to sit and talk with people. He was willing to challenge himself. One of his close friends ended up being Howard Cosell: an older white Jewish man was friends with a Black Muslim. It shows that opposites can attract, and get along, and learn from each other.
The biggest lesson of Ali’s life, for me, is that willingness to grow and change. Over his life, I think his world view expanded beyond just Black people and white people to those who are oppressed in some way and those who are against equality. He changed based on his experiences, and so can we.
Tim Russell is the Vice President of Community Engagement and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at WTTW and WFMT.