The broad recognition of Ali’s passing was expected and deserved. As a transformational figure in sport and culture, he stood out as a man of principle. He was admired as much for this as anything. When he won, he won in his own way. When he battled and lost, he emerged with dignity.
He won many a fight, got hurt plenty doing so. Lost some. That hurt more.
He had a big loss against the United States of America on April 28, 1967, when he refused to be inducted into the U.S. military, a felony offense. He was arrested, his crown taken away, banned from fighting.
Earlier, he had said,
“My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, just take me to jail.”
This put him on the outs. David Susskind expressed it in an ironclad way. “He is a convicted felon in the United States”.
On December 14, 2004, George W. Bush presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to L. Paul Bremer, General Tommy Franks, and George Tenet. He did it for all the right reasons. Their devotion to duty, their service to the country and their superiors in a time of great need…the before and after of our invasion of the country of Iraq.
Eleven months later, on November 9, 2005, this same man presented the Medal of Freedom to Muhammad Ali, for all the wrong reasons. He called him a “man of peace”, but he was a felonious war objector.
“The American people are proud to call Muhammad Ali one of our own.”, but they were not proud when he refused war, and neither was his president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson never gave Ali a medal, for the right reasons.
Ali was not about to fight America’s wars against darker, poorer people — his brothers — whether in Vietnam or in Bush’s invasion of Iraq.
I’ve always blamed his wife for letting him accept that medal from Bush. For this reason, I mark November 9, 2005, as the day Ali died.