On the weekend of July 13-15, my wife Margaret and I traveled South to visit with old friends from Nashville. For most of the past 20-plus years, we have met in Memphis, as a sort of rounding spot for our activities. This year for a change we headed east to Louisville, Kentucky, for bourbon, good food and history.
The bourbon we found on the “Urban–Bourbon” trail through downtown Louisville, with particularity at the Evan Williams distillery tour. It is a class operation from start to finish, featuring tails of history of the region, the drink and the man himself. The end has a tasting in a simulated bar that is quite remarkable – followed by a trip to the gift shop for unique souvenirs. All in all, for this devotee of Irish whiskey, the bourbon experience was most impressive; for the truly serious, a piece of heaven.
As for good food, it was abundant in a variety of venues - funky reclaimed urban spots, and elegant historic hotels. From cheese grits, river mussels, and the local creation of the Derby Day specialty of the “Hot Brown,” we sampled and tasted a weekend away. But the most clearly memorable time came in the search for history. It was found at the five story museum dedicated to the life and legacy of one of Louisville’s and indeed the world’s most famous citizens, Muhammed Ali.
For all my adult life, I have been a huge fan of The Champ. I recently cleaned out some closet space, only to find books, magazines, VHS tapes and DVDs on his life and career. I can honestly say that I have followed Muhammed Ali with an intense devotion, bordering on reverence. To go his museum, to watch the videos of his bouts, to soak in the magic of the man, the athlete, to see a boxer whose combination of speed, grace and power has no equal before or since, was truly a treat.
I am certainly old enough to recall the passionate debate over his name change in 1964, something that seems beyond trivial now. He discarded what he termed a “slave “name in favor of one that reflected his newly found conversion to the religion of Islam. From that date until the day he died, Ali remained faithful. He was a genuine pilgrim, staying true to a higher belief.
For years, there were those fueled by jealousy, racism or just plain stupidity who refused to call him by his chosen name but instead dismissively insisting on calling him Clay. Prejudice of many types blinded so many to the magnificent skills of this Greatest of All Times. Things came to a head in Houston in 1966, where he defiantly refused induction into the Army, citing his religion for an exception. He was convicted of draft evasion, a bogus outcome preordained by men of ill will. He remained defiant, wowing to fight to clear his name and have his right to box restored.
It was for some an act of disloyalty, for others a supreme act of courage. Ali was drafted under most suspicious terms. He could have just gone along, and been parts of USO shows, served 18 months and moved on. He chose not the soft and easy road, but the sincere highway, the one filled with troubles and woe. His request for Objector status on the basis religion was arbitrarily and - according to the U.S. Supreme Court, improperly - denied. But a high price was extracted for courage, losing four plus years of his prime, years in which he would have reigned as the Heavyweight Champion of the world, with all the wealth and fame it delivers. The full price was not fully extracted until later. Forced by the loss of the stolen years of his prime to continue to fight at an age when he should have retired, to absorb the blows to the head long beyond his safe age, he developed Parkinson’s disease, a condition that would plague him to the end.
The final beauty and grace of Ali was however yet to be revealed. The Summer Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996. As it is every year, mystery shrouded the one chosen to light the cauldron, opening the Games. As he came out of the shadows, torch held hand shaking uncontrollably, the world gasped, cheered then cried. As I watched again at the museum, the tears came again. Here was a man, body tortured by a neurological condition vested upon him by the greed of others, soul scarred by the lingering legacy of a racist past, rising up to represent the USA. If anyone ever had the grounds to decline such an honor, for both physical and political reasons, it was Muhammed Ali.
But no knees taken in protest here. As an AMERICAN, he rose to the occasion like the Champion he always was and always shall be. I am grateful for the lesson taught that night, a lesson so often forgotten with the passage of time. As Americans, we are not perfect. We sometimes hurt each other.
But wrongs inflicted by some cannot condemn all. We can and must rise above the that which divides and promote that which binds, instead of the constant search for victimhood. It is lesson of the Champ. We should only hope to follow. Be not afraid.