HOUSTON, TX -- On the night I saw Muhammad Ali fight, grown black men who paid under 10 bucks a head to glimpse their hero shouted from the rafters of the cavernous Astrodome in Houston.
“Ali! — Ali! — Ali! — Ali!”
Their thunderous chants seemed to say, “You are our champion.”
To them, and to me, it didn’t matter that Ali had lost just four months earlier to his arch-rival Joe Frazier in the epic Fight of the Century.
The chants were pulsating. If you did not feel them rattle around in your soul, man, you were not alive.
In our mezzanine seats, my father and I shared binoculars to get close-up views inside the ring. Without them, the action could be blurry. But I didn’t hog the magnifiers; my Dad had splurged to bring us here and I wanted him to enjoy them.
It was 1971. We were in the same city where 4 years earlier, in the prime of his young boxing career, Ali stood for the courage of his convictions and refused induction into the military during the Vietnam War on religious and conscientious objector grounds.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” he famously said. Stripped of his heavyweight championship title, Ali was banned from boxing for more than three years.
Many Americans vilified Ali as a draft dodger. Many admired him for the depth of his convictions, including my father, a Marine in his youth, a Marine forever.
Standing up for his beliefs set Ali on a transcendent course steered by courage and his own moral compass. President Obama recalled that Ali once declared, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize.”
“But get used to me,” Ali said. “Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours, my goals, my own. Get used to me.”
We got used to him just fine.
Ali scaled stratospheric heights greater than those he won with his fists; outside the ring, he became the People’s Champion. When the world learned of his passing, we celebrated Ali as a civil rights leader, a humanitarian, trailblazer, goodwill ambassador and role model.
“He taught me it was OK to bet on myself,” one former NFL star and coach said in almost reverential tones.
I was just a boy when I saw Muhammad Ali fight, yet I knew that we were watching more than a boxing match against his former sparring partner Jimmy Ellis. We were witnessing the rarest of individuals who said and did what he believed was right, no matter the personal consequences.
Of course, we were eager, too, to see how Ali would rebound from his devastating loss to Frazier.
While fans around the country had paid handsomely to see Ali-Frazier on closed-circuit theater screens, my father and I watched for free on TV at my grandparents’ home, thanks to a Mexican TV network’s live broadcast of the fight, which spilled over to South Texas. The small black-and-white lit my grandparents’ darkened living room, nestled in the Mexican American barrio in McAllen, Texas, a scene repeated in hundreds, probably thousands, of homes along the border.
The left hook which sent Ali to the canvas knocked the wind out of me, too.
Ali was our sports idol. Were it any other fighter, my father would not have paid $20 for two tickets to see Ali fight in person, not to mention the cost for a motel and gas. Today, a 20-dollar bill might not get you and your mate into the movies; back then it seemed like a fortune.
Laser-focused on providing for his family, my father was not given to spending on entertainment. A barber, Juan Sr. probably made no more than a few thousand dollars a year then, though he worked til near midnight on Saturdays.
But Ali won our hearts like no other fighter we’d seen, floating, stinging, dancing and Ali-shuffling with the grace of a lightweight boxer, though he was a chiseled, broad-shouldered heavyweight with Popeye biceps. Ali beat bigger, stronger men with speed, footwork AND a punch. Oh, and he looked spectacular doing it, too.
“I’m pretty,” he audaciously boasted.
Ali was a great fighter, maybe the greatest. But he was an even better human being. The wounds and indignities he suffered surely cut deep. When he rejected his given name, Cassius Clay, as a slave name, a fraternity of white male sportswriters refused to call him by his new one. For righteously speaking out against bigotry and social injustices, many Americans branded him a militant and a radical.
Blacks flocked to their hero, and righteously so. Yet I thought Ali did not speak out against injustice in terms of black and white. Instead he pitched a wide tent that cloaked the poor and anyone else who needed comfort.
When Ali questioned why a country that didn’t defend him against bigotry at home would then ask him to kill strangers in another country, he gave voice to what I and others thinking. After all, Mexican Americans were present in the civil rights struggle, and we later forged our own Chicano rights fight. Like blacks, young Mexican Americans were sent to the front lines of Vietnam and died in starkly disproportionate numbers.
Like blacks, education deferments were typically out of our reach. Like blacks, Mexican Americans historically suffered discrimination, segregation in schools, and lynchings in Texas. Our ancestors were “deported” to Mexico, though they were American citizens. Still, our existence is marginalized in Texas history. A classroom textbook under consideration in the state outrageously describes Mexican Americans as out to destroy society.
Maybe once we would have suffered such indignities quietly. Maybe inspired by the lessons of Ali, we are emboldened to stand up and speak out against new injustices. In fighting for his convictions, Ali fought for us, too.
The ticket stubs from the night my father and I saw Ali fight are treasures for all time.
Today with a few clicks on a keyboard and mouse, you can see the fight on YouTube. I prefer the grainy images burned into my memory: Ali perpetually on his toes, circling left, circling right. Unleashing a non-stop, piston-like torrent of left jabs, snapping Ellis' head back over and over. Gloves striking flesh. Thump. Thump. Thump. In the final round, Ellis, game but outmatched, defenseless on the ropes. The referee steps in.
"Ali — Ali — Ali."