Since his death, I have been trying to assess what seems to me the enormous impact that Mohammed Ali had on me. I was a kid when Cassius Clay first emerged. All of the kids I knew rooted for him. Why would you root for an artless thing like Sonny Liston? We bought snacks and drinks and sat around a radio at night to listen to his fights which were usually not as long an evening as we had planned for. We got six rounds when he took the title from Liston. The rematch lasted only half a round and while we were thrilled that Clay had one we could not help being disappointed as we packed up all the snacks.
One of the first influences of Ali on me was an enduring distrust of sports journalists. They were all but a few against him. Even the ones I had admired like Red Smith. But when Ali after winning the title turned to them and said ,”I don't have to be what you want me to be,” he earned my never diminished admiration. When he risked his career in his prime to stand against the war in Vietnam, he became one of us. Ever since I have regarded him as a leading voice of my generation.
I became a boxing fan, so ardent that once I even covered a title bout for Reuters. I also took up boxing , training at the 92St Y with an affable man named Johnny who brought in tough kids from the nearby barrio.. My only good punch was a flicking left handed jab, the Ali trademark, though I had absolutely none of his other skills.
Then one day he retired, too late. He should have done it years before. I discovered that I was not a boxing fan, I was only an Ali fan and had no interest in the sport without him.
Today my idea of a great athlete is someone who when he steps up to the mike puts everything he has on the line in order to say something important