The Good Ol’ Days: The Louisville Lip
Muhammad Ali passed away recently at the age of 74. While I never met him, I did sit as close to him as your front door is from your kitchen during an ABA basketball game in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky years ago. More in a moment…
Ali was arguably the best heavyweight boxer in history and certainly the quickest and most athletic. He was the highest-profile “draft dodger” of the Vietnam era, although the U.S. Supreme Court would later rule, unanimously, that he had a legitimate reason not to serve in the military. The years have dimmed the negative and accentuated the positive, especially in light of recent revelations that he was severely dyslexic as a young man.
Although he had already won numerous Golden Gloves amateur boxing titles and the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Cassius Clay, as he was then known, was under the sports radar until he flew onto the screen with an improbable 7th-round TKO over Charles “Sonny” Liston to win the world heavyweight crown in 1964.
Unlike most athletes of that day, Clay was loud and proud and turned mundane press conferences into must-attend events. His antics were always with a twinkle in his eye as he called out opponents and their physical attributes (“He ain’t pretty like I am”). We were a bit uncomfortable with that.
A short time after winning the title, Clay told the world that he was a Black Muslim, and was a member of the Nation of Islam. He was seen in the company of the movement’s leader Elijah Muhammad and Mr. Muhammad’s hand-picked successor Malcolm X. That sealed the unpopularity deal for millions of Americans who were still trying to fathom the Civil Rights Act of 1964, JFK’s assassination and LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War.
Malcolm X. was assassinated in early 1965, purportedly at Elijah Muhammad’s direction after Mr. X. had repeatedly criticized the latter’s leadership of the Nation of Islam. This further alienated the public from Ali, who defended his heavyweight title against Sonny Liston a few months later. The venue was in that hotbed of boxing Lewiston, Maine. A group of Rugby men, including optometrist Carl Weimer, drove to Bismarck to watch the fight on closed-circuit TV in an auditorium.
The fight’s outcome was controversial, with Liston appearing to take a dive from a “phantom punch” by Ali, who was declared the winner by KO less than two minutes into the first round. Dr. Weimer’s cigar had rolled under his seat and he missed the “knockout” while bending down to retrieve it.
Ali’s popularity plummeted even more when he refused to be inducted for military service after the Louisville draft board had reclassified his draft status from 1-Y to 1-A in 1966. His refusal to step forward at the Armed Forces Induction Center in Houston in April, 1967 resulted in his being arrested and later found guilty of unlawfully avoiding military service, which put him on the boxing sidelines for almost four years. No state would license his fights and he lost his U.S. passport while his appeal percolated up through the court system. After he finally won his case in 1971, he went about winning matches and you know the rest. His world-wide fame would eventually transcend his accomplishments in the ring.
During my time in Minneapolis in 1966-67, I listened to two or three of Ali’s comeback fights on WLOL radio with the legendary boxing play-by-play announcer Don Dunphy at the mic.
In 1974 I was living and working in Louisville and was at courtside for an ABA basketball game between the Kentucky Colonels and the New York (Long Island) Nets, featuring Julius “Dr. J.” Erving. The game was televised back to Gotham and the Colonel’s owner, John Y. Brown, who also owned Kentucky Fried Chicken, had the white-suited elderly Colonel Harland Sanders walk the length of the sideline with the assistance of a cane for the TV cameras during a time out.
In the second quarter I began hearing shouts of “Ali! Ali!” throughout Freedom Hall and I looked around to see The Greatest entering nearby with a large entourage. He was wearing a dark suit and tie. At halftime, took off his jacket and shadow-boxed with Kentucky’s seven-foot-two giant Artis Gilmore. A few months later Ali regained his heavyweight title against George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle”.
Outside the ring is one thing, inside the ring Muhammad Ali was simply The Greatest that we will ever see.
Bill Gronvold is a 1966 graduate of RHS.
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