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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

My Heroes: Muhammad Ali And My Dad

For people of a certain generation - maybe aged 45 and older - Muhammad Ali was iconic and loved or a pain in the a$$ and hated.

For most of the world, he was adored... and myself... being of that generation, he was, along with my dad, my hero... and I feel lucky to have been one of the many people who got a chance to meet him.

Although, I have no memory of meeting him.

As my dad related to me, he taught my father a fantastic lesson about life, and it was passed along to me as I got older, and one that I'll pass on to you all now.

As we all know, Ali was a boxer... the self-proclaimed Greatest... but it wasn't just for his boxing abilities that the description is apt, rather it is for all of his humanitarian work that he did—especially when the cameras weren't rolling or the shutters and flashes spouting.

It was August of 1966, and Ali was in London England to box Brit Brian London at Earl's Court Exhibition Hall - with Ali defending his Heavyweight boxing championship.

I was one-and-a-half years old, and it was early one foggy London morning, and my dad had taken me for a push in my pram probably because I was being all crabby.

Walking near a hotel, my dad spied the unmistakable figure of a young and handsome Ali standing against the hotel entrance, minding his own business all alone without a single person around him.

My dad walked over to him pushing the pram... me strangely quiet.

"Are you Cassius Clay?" he asked.


"Are you sure? You look just like him."

"That was my slave name. I'm Muhammad Ali or didn't you know that?"

"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot," apologized my dad.

After introducing himself to the Champ whose huge hand swallowed my dad's, Ali peered down to look at me inside the pram.

"And who's this?"

"That's my son, Andrew! When he grows up, he's going to take your championship away from you!"

Ali just laughed and said: "Good! That means I'll have it for another 20 years."

Gotta love the man's quick wit! He also probably noted that my dad was a good seven inches (18 cm) shorter and was only a scant breezy 70 pounds (~32kg) lighter than himself, so the odds were looking good that even if he did have the belt through 1986, it wasn't going to be me that took it from him thanks to genetics... though I did get more than half-way in the height and all the way in the weight department as I write this.

Ali invited my dad (and I) into the hotel to have a drink.

Don't worry, it was just milk.

During their sit down at the hotel eating area, my father peppered Ali with questions.

Keep in mind that this was 1966, and Ali, had converted to be a Muslim in 1964 (when he had changed his name) and had spoken out in the U.S. for racial pride of African Americans (Blacks, Negroes, Coloreds) to stand up against the white domination that existed during the charged times of racial segregation as part of that country's Civil Rights Movement.

My dad, with eyes wide, asked: "So... are you gonna beat him up? Do you hate him?" (referring to poor White boxer Brian London - another in along of great White hopes in the boxing fraternity that continues to be sought to this day - though nowadays, the color isn't as MUCH of a concern).

"Nawwwwww, man. I don't hate nobody," the Champ drawled.

Ali continues: "I'm going to whup him because I'm the better boxer."

"Not because he's White?" continued my dad... and in his defense, it was (again) 1966... and my Brown dad... had earlier been denied a job because of the color of his skin. My dad had tried out for the Wimbledon soccer team... it was probably fourth division or something crappy like that... and while he had impressed the club with his skill, he was told they couldn't take him unless he found some way to become White.

Shocking? Not for 1966.

Curiously enough, by the 1980s, in a cruel twist of fate, my father had lost the color of his Brown skin via vitiligo, and so was closer to being White like the soccer club had wanted.

Ali went on. "I don't hate anybody, man. Black, White, Brown, Yellow, Red, Blue, Green, whatever. Love my brothers and sisters. All of them."

Ali said he had to get going, slugged back his milk, stood his towering frame up before peering down at me and then bending over to give me a kiss.

Before he turned to leave, my dad spewed out: "Champ! Wait! Can you give me your autograph?"

And that is how one of my baby photos has Muhammad Ali's autograph on the back of it.

My dad just sat there at the hotel booth breathless - probably wondering at his good fortune and just what exactly he had babbled at Ali... no one would believe it... but he had the autograph. And probably a milk mustache, but that's another story.

Strangely enough... I was quiet throughout the entire affair... which I am sure included more scintillating conversation, but if there was, my father neglected to add more color to the story.

Ali, had, I believe, already made it clear to the U.S. government that he would not be drafted in the U.S. Military to fight against the communist threat in Vietnam.

He famously and said that Allah didn't want him to kill... and that he had no beef with the Viet Cong (soldiers), and was willing to back up his famous Louisville Lip.

He was willing to give up his hard-fought for boxing championship and his freedom, to go to jail as a conscientious objector to the war... eventually losing three plus years of his prime boxing years (and lots of money, to boot) serving his prison sentence.

As for Brian London, Ali's opponent in August of 1966, he was KO-d in the third round after Ali threw a 12-punch combo in under three seconds... because he was just that effing fast - with most going through London's defenses.

I guess I got lucky. I got a love tap from the lips of Ali.

Yeah... I still have that autographed photo... along with a few other autographed boxing collector's cards I have picked up over the years. It's somewhere in the basement - I know which small white photo album (one of three) it sits in... I just couldn't find them last night.

As a kid in the 70s, I used to enjoy watching boxing every Friday night on TV... always happy to watch two guys beat the crap out of each other knowing one of them wasn't me. I would watch all the boxing I could... and used to freely admit that along with hockey (ice), it was my favorite sport to watch.

I never boxed. I'm sure I would have been a bleeder. I never played professional soccer. But I did get to go to Japan.

I will reiterate my answer to a question I was asked during the vetting process to try and become an assistant English teacher in the JET Program back in February or so of 1990...

"Andrew... the Japanese have been known to be a bit racist. How would you handle that?"

"The same way I do in Canada. You can't yell back or threaten... you can, if possible, calmly explain yourself without bringing 'race' back into it. You can't immediately change a racist's mind of their belief. You can turn the other cheek and prove you are the better person."

That's basically what I said. I can no longer recall exactly what I said... just that it was a spur of the moment non-hesitating answer. It's the only question I can recall being asked  - though I am sure there were others. 

My answer... it's why being called a gaijin - an outsider or foreigner - by multitudes of Japanese people over my three year stay in Japan was never an insult to me. When you let words bother you, you give the words power. Why do you think Blacks can use the term 'nigger' amongst themselves. Homosexuals use the term 'fag' - it's a reclamation of a word that takes away the power of hatred in a non-violent manner.

My father is still alive, three years older than Ali... who is now gone.

Lessons learned in my family... my brother and I were raised properly to treat everyone equally - even before we learned of the Ali story. My dad and mom made sure of that.

These past few days I get all misty-eyed every time I think of Ali's passing... but only because the world lost a great spokesperson for human rights. 

It's the world's loss.

Think about this... Back in the 1960s through the 1980s... pretty much everyone on the planet knew who Ali was. There is probably no one on this planet who could say that 4 billion people knew who he was, with almost all of them respecting him. Even now.

If you can... to see how great a boxer he was, watch film of pre-1967 fights. He was quick. Guys would try and hit him, and he would simply slide his body back to avoid the punch. He couldn't be hit.

But after losing those years in jail... he lost his speed... and started to get hit... and hit and hit. He invented rope-a-dope to allow himself to be hit while mostly able to cover himself up as he leaned back against the ring ropes... allowing himself to be hit for round after round until his opponent got tired... and then, unable to lift their arms, Ali would strike... pummeling the opponent. 

But he didn't hate them. He never hated anyone. That's why he is my hero. My dad... him too... because he learned from the Greatest.

Andrew Joseph
PS: Image above from Wikipedia, of Ali in 1966. Unknown - [1] Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang Bestanddeelnummer 924-3060


  1. What a great story ... definitely one to pass on to future generations. Ali had a training camp in PA in the 70's where many locals had the chance to watch him as he trained. He was a kind and gentle soul who always had time to talk to the kids according to local newspapers. There are some funny stories of him and Elvis (yes, that Elvis) hanging about town.

    Also, a nice tribute to your Dad ...

    1. Thanks, FFF! It's funny how polarizing Ali could be, as people saw his brashness and 'ego' as a deterrent. What everyone else calls egomania, Ali would call self-confidence. You don't get to be the best at something unless you have that, and Ali had that in spades. Man... he was entertaining to watch. What was disheartening, however, was seeing images of Ali from the past year or two. I know everyone (hopefully) gets old, but to see how Parkinson's had robbed him of his ability to float like a butterfly... well... still... you could always see a glimmer in his eyes that let you know he knew something you didn't. I'm gonna miss him. Damn... tearing up again. I'm such a baby. I wish.