The day the great one died


It has been more than a month since the late, great Muhammad Ali passed away, but as I watched the ESPY awards Wednesday night and saw him remembered again through a new song, my mind drifted back to thoughts that came to me in the days following his June 3 death.

As I watched tribute after tribute for several days, what struck me most was how he captured the world’s attention. I wondered just how many lives his life touched, and how many there have ever been who left a positive mark on more lives. And as I thought it about more, I reflected on how he touched my life.

I remembered him standing there in 1996 in Atlanta as he lit the Olympic torch, shaking, courageously fighting off the effects of Parkinson’s Disease that were starting to ravish his body. I remembered how when I was first introduced to him I didn’t like his brash mouth, probably because I was not taught to speak that way. I remembered how I rooted for Joe Frazier each time he fought Ali in those epic bouts, then how as the years passed Ali became my favorite boxer.

I thought about all the places he fought, how people from every corner of the world seemed drawn to him, and how the more I saw of him, the more he was like a breath of fresh air.

Then I thought of my own experiences with boxing.

When my brother closest to me in age and I were young, there always seemed to be a pair of boxing gloves around somewhere – probably from some Christmas past. When we got bored of the regular sports we played almost from morning to night – or maybe when we were filling a bit of aggression, as boys after do – we’d sometimes turn to the boxing gloves.

We’d pound away until our extra energy was burned or our anger was doused, then put the gloves up until the next time.

When he got a bit older and our boxing matches were a little too rambunctious for the house, we’d head outside. A time or two, with help from friends, we built a boxing ring in the back yard. It wasn’t much, just a bunch of poles and sticks laid on the ground in the shape of a boxing ring. We stuffed Kleenexes between our teeth and lips to serve as mouthpieces, then went at it, complete with friends serving as cornermen, announcers and the like.

We were smallish boys, and still too young to cause major damage, but I distinctly remember a dizzy feeling and stumbling around a bit, after getting nailed upside the head too many times.

When we were in our early 20s, my brother lived with a bunch of guys in a big house on North High Street. It had those tall ceilings and we played basketball, Ping Pong, a form of baseball with a Ping Pong ball, billiards and had wrestling matches in on a regular basis in that old house. And, when the mood struck, we’d have boxing matches.

On the second floor there was a small, empty room, about 10 feet by 10, with a well-finished wood floor. That was our boxing ring. Two guys would take turns going at it, with the other guys crowded around the only entrance to the room, watching and keeping track of rounds on a clock.

Usually someone gave up, then two more guys would lace on the gloves.

It didn’t take me long to learn that I liked watching a lot more than stepping in the ring.

We had a friend who lived at the house who was bigger than most of us, and he seemed to enjoy the boxing. He was good at it, too. But since he was bigger, and the floor was slick, he’d box in his sock feet while the rest of us wore tennis shoes to kind of even things out. He’d also take it fairly easy on us, not delivering any really solid shots unless we landed one on him.

One night I was feeling pretty cocky, so big Brian and I squared off in the “ring.” Things were going pretty good. I was dancing around him, and even felt like maybe I was doing a little more than holding my own. But about the time I landed one somewhat decent shot, I received an immediate shot back, square in the nose.

I took a step back, collected my thoughts, noticed I didn’t feel so good anymore, and threw the towel in right there. I believe that was the last time I entered the “ring.”

I was convinced right then and there that it was a lot more fun watching the other goofballs pound on each other than to end a celebratory night with a bad head and nose ache.

It was about that time that we all became pretty big boxing fans. There were tons of exciting boxers in the ’80s, and if they were on TV, we were watching. For years afterward if there was big match on Pay-Per-View, we’d all gather together, usually at my brother’s home, and watch some more.

After I thought about it for a while, I realized that all those exploits were influenced by Muhammad Ali.

I was walking through a hotel lobby in Avon, Ohio the day I heard the great Ali had died. I took a seat and listened for a moment, then headed back to my room to listen some more. I was sad for a moment, but the more I listened, the more I realized that Ali lived his life richly and well. He treated all men, no matter their color, the same. He was bold. He was courageous. He was a symbol of hope and possibility.

We all could take a lesson from that.

Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.

Jeff Gilliland Staff columnist Gilliland Staff columnist

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