Anyone who grew up in the 1970s was in one way or another affected by Muhammad Ali. You were emboldened or embarrassed, amazed or angered, but you were definitely caught in this legendary figure’s wake.
Muhammad Ali was astonishingly unpredictable in and out of the ring, and that’s because Ali’s boxing career and political activism were fluid and ever changing. Ali may not have been a visionary, but he was daring and bold and he challenged the precepts of his time: a fleet footed heavyweight would never become champion; a popular, young athlete would never have the inner fortitude and discipline to stand behind his principles and serve a three-year suspension from his sport for refusing to register for the draft; and certainly a poor, African American kid from Louisville Kentucky would never have there wherewithal to revolutionize political, social and cultural mindsets and become a household name worldwide.
As his death was announced a few weeks ago, I felt a wide range of emotions. Mostly I wondered why Miami, my hometown, hadn’t done more to honor him in his passing. Why was there a memorial service in his hometown of Louisville and not one in the town where his meteoric ascension began?
I don’t think white people can ever quite understand the magnitude of what Ali meant to African Americans throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. In times of immense political disarray and social upheaval, there was Ali looking cool while questioning the very foundation of our country and the leaders who ran it. He defiantly questioned the rationale behind America’s military involvement in Southeast Asia. “Those poor people (Vietnamese) never called me a nigger or lynched my people,” he reasoned.
Ali made sports — and particularly the violent sport of boxing — entertaining to general audiences. He was either the quintessential showman or clown, depending on how puritanical your boxing perspective is. He brought hype to sport and, at the same time, made hype a sport.
The colorful interviews with acerbic sports journalist Howard Cosell remain embedded in my consciousness. My friends and I would re-enact them in the schoolyard during recess, though much of what Ali and Cosell were discussing went right over our heads. Beneath the veneer of fun and games, the two men were discussing profound changes in American life — the civil rights movement was in full swing, women were redefining their role in society, and American youth of all races, religions and creeds were questioning the military build up in Vietnam. The revolution was being televised and Ali was one of its pied pipers.
The Louisville Lip permanently injected himself into American pop culture and became kitchen table talk everywhere — including my family’s kitchen table in Hialeah. Muhammad Ali was accessible to Miamians. He was part of Miami lore, our history, our panache. As a kid, I heard colorful, larger-than-life Ali stories about the 5th Street Gym on Miami Beach. Although a trip to Miami Beach seemed like an excursion to another state back then, I visited several times to take in the ambiance. The steamy gym didn’t disappoint. The place smelled of cigars, Bengay and struggle. Men walked with purpose and there was a distorted, perhaps delusional sense of accomplishment. There were no champions training in there, but when you were in that place, one of boxing’s hallowed grounds, you had to act like success was right around the corner. The 5th Street Gym was a microcosm of Miami’s unique blend of Americans. I heard Spanish, Brooklyn accents, Yiddish phrases, and plenty of “yo” and “bro.”
Like any great king, Ali had an outstanding court and wouldn’t you know it was reflective of Miami’s ethnic mix. The knights of the Champ’s round table included the Dundee brothers — Angelo and Chris — who migrated from the Northeast and became (arguably) boxing’s greatest trainer and promoter, respectively; the fight doctor Ferdie Pacheco, an Ybor City native and veritable renaissance man whose wry wit made him a fixture on network television for decades; the mystical hype man Drew Bundini Brown, an African American whose unintelligible chants as Ali approached the ring struck fear in opponents; and Afro-Cuban masseur Luis Sarria, who didn’t speak a word of English, yet managed to intimately work with Ali for three decades. Each made Miami his home at one point or another and helped put our burgeoning town on the map.
Contradictions abound when one examines Ali’s life. I nearly wept when I saw images of the Champ’s meeting with Fidel Castro; it stung. I never understood his betrayal of his friend Malcolm X, who was purportedly murdered by the Nation of Islam. Ali cowered and said nothing.
The inconsistencies were also abundant in the ring, where he was very good, but not the greatest. How could “the greatest” lose to the likes of Leon Spinks? How could “the greatest” be gifted decisions over Ken Norton and Ernie Shavers? How could “the greatest” knock out Sonny Liston with a phantom punch?
Those are all significant points, and yet they’re utterly meaningless. So maybe Ali wasn’t the greatest boxer of all time, as he proclaimed to be. And as it turns out, maybe his legitimizing third world thugs means he wasn’t the astute diplomat he fancied himself. But what is overwhelmingly apparent is that, regardless of the reservations you or I may have about the late Champ, he meant everything and stood for everything to many people around the world, including Miami.
Ali’s weaknesses were part of what drew people to him. Beneath the overflowing braggadocio, there was a frail human quality about the Champ that rang true. Ali survived the highs and lows and he did it bravely and gracefully. Imperfection is what makes American heroes unique. We honor those who buckle in the face of life’s adversities, but manage to proudly pick themselves back up. Ali was the quintessential survivor; he got up from the proverbial deck many times and he went toe-to-toe with ominous adversaries: racism, the military draft, and George Foreman to name a few.
When he died, certainly Miami, a town of underdogs and overachievers, would honor the great Muhammad Ali. Right? Sadly, the answer is no — at least not to the magnitude befitting the Champ. The reason we didn’t is an indictment of our sometimes myopic view of the world. We cannot proclaim to be a “world-class city” and view the globe through simplistic prisms.
If windbag politicos, dope dealers and shysters disguised as businessmen have earned streets named after them in Miami, I will go out on the limb and say that Muhammad Ali deserves a boulevard. Ali, after all, was imperfect — thus making him a perfect American hero for a city that negotiates what it means to be American every day.
Joe Cardona is an Emmy-winning filmmaker. He's directed, produced and written 19 feature-length documentaries, most of which have aired nationally on PBS. Joe has traveled the U.S., Latin America and Europe screening his films in some of the most prestigious film festivals in the world. Some of the highlights of his work include Café con Leche, Celia the Queen, Nou Bouke, Miami Boheme, and The Day it Snowed in Miami. Joe has also written and directed two feature films: Bro and Water Mud & Factories. He is also an op-ed columnist for the Miami Herald.
Joe is a proud Miamian, the son of Cuban exile parents, and the father of an eight-year-old daughter aptly named Celia.