When we think of our formative years as baby boomers, we usually talk about Vietnam and the drug culture and free sex. The people we often remember first are Janis Joplin and John Lennon, LBJ and JFK. But the famous boxer who just died was a boomer icon too, and his influence lives on in the present-day life of boomer Mahani Zubedy, who boxes herself in Austin, Texas.
When Mohammad Ali was about to fight on TV — even when he was still Cassius Clay — my mother would announce that she needed to quiet her heart, so excited was she, my mother who was no sportswoman and watched only old movies and the news. But she couldn’t wait for Ali’s fights. Mohammed Ali transcended sports, race, gender, the world; everyone watched him! He was handsome and beautiful with striking features and precise, graceful movements. When someone mentioned “poetry in motion,” it’s as likely as not that they were thinking of Ali.
As a child, what I remember most was feeling sick in my stomach when Ali was hit … and elation when he won. He was the good guy, my king, my hero. He was fighting for me, my family, my nation, my world. When Ali beat whoever he was fighting, I won, for one moment. I was champion of the world and all was well.
It was only many years later that I began to admire Ali’s artistry and athleticism on YouTube. I was fifty-eight, my right knee needed replacement, but I was not ready for surgery. My doctor suggested a lifestyle change. I had practiced Taekwondo for twenty years and was exploring Thai kickboxing. But the bad knee meant, no more kicking for me. So I boxed instead.
Boxing has strengthened my quads and helped my knee. It is a technical sport, it challenges physically and especially mentally, more so than Taekwondo or Muy Thai. In boxing, the ways you use your legs, your core, and of course your arms are precise. But progress is excruciatingly slow and incremental, and it is not “fun,” it is work that you do mostly on your own, dogged work, and I love it.
When Muhammad Ali delivered his one-two or else the rapid combinations that wiped out his opponents, I now understand better than ever that it was the result of tremendous hard work and talent. And smarts. But the punches his words packed were equally awesome. They were strategic, sustained campaigns. Ali was king of sports trash talk. He taunted and provoked his opponents as soon as a fight was agreed upon.
When he became the world champion in 1964 at the age of twenty-two, beating the heavily favored Sonny Liston, he called Liston a big ugly bear and vowed to donate Liston to a zoo after he whupped him. Then, here’s Ali before 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman: “I’ve done something … for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
Ali’s many brilliant quotes are poetry. My favorite is, “It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.” I try to live by that credo.
Mohammad Ali had a beautiful spirit. As rough as was the sport in which he gained fame, there was something pure and childlike about him and he touched something inside all of us. To God he belongs and to God is his return. Rest in Peace.
Mahani Zubedy boxes in Austin, Texas. She blogs at growingoldisgold.com.