Cowboys for Muhammad

     Like everyone I know who came of age in the 1960s, I spent last weekend reading all I could find about Muhammad Ali — my last look at the champ.
     Two evenings, long ago, I remember.
     On March 8, 1971, I was the only white man in a pool room, shooting nine-ball and listening to the first Ali-Frazier fight from Madison Square Garden.
     As the Fight of the Century wore on and Ali was getting the worst of it, everyone’s eyes in that pool room filled with tears. But everyone was too proud to cry.
     It was infuriating — not that Frazier appeared to be winning, fair and square, but that the white radio announcers kept calling Ali Cassius Clay.
     “That’s his God-given name,” one of the white announcers said.
     To which everyone in that room erupted: “God-given!”
     It’s hard to explain to someone who did not live through those years how much hatred and fear the white world dumped upon Ali. I cannot think of an English word to express it. The Spanish word is desprecio: not contempt, exactly, but the refusal to accept the man at his true worth.
     Skip ahead seven years.
     I had just got my teacher’s license and moved to Arizona with my new wife. I hadn’t got my first paycheck yet. We were so short of cash I remember pushing a grocery cart through a supermarket and trying to calculate whether we could afford pepper.
     Ali was fighting Leon Spinks for the title, and I begged my wife for a dollar to go to the corner bar and watch the fight. We didn’t have a TV. A draft beer cost a quarter then.
     It was a cowboy bar. Everyone in there but me was a cowboy or a biker. Wasn’t a black face in sight. I had no business being there, in my button-down shirt. But I had to see The Champ.
     But here’s the thing: Everyone in that bar was pulling for Ali.
     Big ugly bikers in chains.
     Cowboys drinking through the big plugs of chaw in their lip.
     The bartender with his sawed-off baseball bat.
     When Ali won by unanimous decision, that place went wild.
     Bikers and cowboys pounded me on the back, and I pounded theirs.
     Seven years ago, these men had been the natural enemies of Muhammad Ali. Now they were buying beers for a hippie schoolteacher and pounding their glasses on the bar for joy.
     What brought them around was not that Ali had been right on the issues that had made him unpopular: racial prejudice, Vietnam, the Muslim religion.
     What brought them round was the force of the man’s personality.
     Muhammad Ali is the only man I would dare to describe as belligerently lovable.
     He had been stripped of his heavyweight title, threatened with jail for being a conscientious objector to war, derided and insulted in every newspaper in the country, including The New York Times, and on every television station.
     They wouldn’t even call him by his own name.
     Ali lost the best years of his career, and millions of dollars, to this prejudice. His revenge, and his glory, was to make his country love him, along with the rest of the world.
     But that’s not what impressed me about Muhammad Ali. What impressed me most was his guileless, irrepressible, lovable personality: a man so lovable he made a roomful of bikers and rednecks love him, in a cowboy bar in Arizona.
     Rest in peace, champ.

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