By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Jim Healy - Muhammad Ali: A boy's first sports hero
thumbnail Ali autograph
Muhammad Ali's autograph sits on the back of a business card owned by the Statesboro Herald's Jim Healy. - photo by Special to the Herald

        It was March 8, 1971, almost exactly two months before my 12th birthday, and the night Muhammad Ali was fighting Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century.”
        I was living in New York City and Ali was my first sports “hero.” While I had heard his name and knew a little about him, I didn’t start following him closely until I saw him briefly on the streets of New York in the summer of 1969. I can’t remember where it was, but I saw him surrounded by a bunch of young kids walking with him. I knew who he was and it made an impression on me. So, I started to read everything I could about him.
        Ali died late Friday night after a decades-long battle with Parkinson’s disease, that, no doubt, was caused by the many blows he suffered as a boxer. The symptoms were evident in the early 80s. The world watched his tremors as he lit the Atlanta Olympic torch in 1996. And cut him off from the public almost completely in the past few years.
        When I read last week Ali was in the hospital in Arizona for a serious respiratory ailment, along with most people, I thought he probably never would leave the hospital. So, the announcement of his death was not a surprise. His loss is sad, indeed, but I’m so thankful for what he meant to me growing up.
        Back in 1969, I read about his refusal to accept induction into the Army as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War based on religious grounds, but Ali’s boxing and his wit were what intrigued me. When it was first announced Ali might be approved for a boxing license in Georgia in 1970 to fight top heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry, I couldn’t believe I actually would get a chance to see him fight.
        After much negotiation, Ali beat Quarry, fought once more and then the build up to fighting Frazier at Madison Square Garden began. In my sixth-grade class, it was what my friends and I talked about all the time. Most of us wanted Ali to win – no one more than me. It dominated the newspapers in New York and posters were everywhere you walked in the city.
        On fight night, I tuned into a sports radio station I listened to every night. There was no live radio broadcast, but at the end of every round, the announcer would read a short synopsis of the action from the Associated Press, along with who they thought won the round. Ali got off to a quick start and I remember being so excited. But as the fight went on, the action favored Frazier more and more and when they reported Ali was knocked down in the 15th and final round, I knew it was over.
        The decision was announced with Frazier the winner and I went into my parent’s room and cried for a while. The next day at school, my friends and I agreed Ali had to have been robbed of the decision and surely would be back. We were right about one of those — Ali would come back, but Frazier won the fight.

The champ returns
        Flash forward three and a half years. Living in Miami now, I was 15 and Ali was set to fight George Foreman for the heavyweight championship. Foreman was so intimidating, I really didn’t think Ali had a chance. Nonetheless, my brother, a friend and I drove to the Miami Beach Convention Center to watch a closed circuit broadcast of the fight from Africa.
        The crowd was overwhelmingly in favor of Ali. As the fight went on, it became clear Ali was getting the best of the action and the crowd in the convention center could sense something special was happening. Finally, at the end of the eighth round, Ali caught Foreman with a series of punches and he went down. He stayed down and Ali was champion again. It is my single greatest and most cherished memory of a sporting event in my life. My parents were waiting up when I got home and shared the excitement with me. A world apart from the night three years earlier.
        But, Ali was far more than just a wildly popular sports figure. He was a cultural, racial and international lightning rod not only for his conversion to Islam and, not only rejecting serving in the Army, but actively criticizing U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
        Certainly, many veterans groups and citizens condemned Ali as a “draft dodger.” And many still do. But a simple review of the facts shows how much Ali gave up and how much he put at risk for not going into the Army. As heavyweight champion, officials made clear to Ali that, like Joe Louis before him in World War II, he would put on exhibitions and entertain troops. He would come nowhere near military action.
        But Ali objected to the war based on his religious beliefs and would not be compelled to join the Army. He was arrested, tried and convicted of draft evasion. He was stripped of his championship and license to box in every state.
        Ali’s decision cost him the prime of his boxing career and millions of dollars in earnings. Several appeals of his conviction were denied and there was no indication he ever would be able to resume his career. He put all he had, all he had worked his entire life to achieve, at risk for what he believed was right. People can disagree with his beliefs, but they can’t reasonably argue he wasn’t sincere.
        Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed and reversed his conviction, 8-0, because lower courts never truly considered his conscientious objector status. That ruling came three months after Ali lost to Frazier in 1971.

An iconic figure
        Following his triumph over Foreman, Ali went on to become one of the most iconic sports figures of all time and one of the most recognizable figures in the world. It would have been nice if Ali retired right after that and perhaps he would still be alive today and would not have developed Parkinson’s. But that wasn’t possible. That wasn’t Ali. He loved the spotlight and he loved boxing too much.
        Selfishly, I’m glad he kept fighting. His third fight against Frazier — The Thrilla in Manila — was one of the greatest fights ever and one of the most brutal.
        My father, brother and I got to see him in person fight a three-round exhibition against Rodney Bobick at the Miami Beach Convention Center in April 1975. The place was packed and everyone was there to see Ali. He put on a great show, even though he never tried to actually punch Bobick with any force.
        I got to meet him briefly in 1991 during a book signing of a biography at a Miami bookstore. While his Parkinson’s was evident, Ali carried on small conversations with all of us in line. His words were soft and spoken in a deliberate voice, but still funny and charming. He even got up once and did a slow version of the famed “Ali shuffle.”
        The autograph you see with this column, however, my father got for me shortly after Ali regained his title against Foreman. He was in Los Angeles on business in November 1974. Ali recently had returned from the fight in Africa and was attending a fundraiser sponsored by actor Warren Beatty at Chasen’s Restaurant.
        My father told me he and his friend had a few drinks and he got up the nerve to speak with Ali. He told Ali that I was one of his biggest fans and would he mind signing an autograph. He said Ali couldn’t have been more gracious and signed “To Jimmy from Muhammad Ali” on the back of one of my father’s business cards. I treasure the autograph for two reasons: It’s from Ali and my father got it for me.
        An era is forever gone with Ali’s passing. The combination of Ali’s impact on sports, culture and race, along with a personality never witnessed before on the world stage of athletics make it easy to say: Ali was unique. We will never see another like him.
        So, while I mourn Ali’s death today, I celebrate his life and offer a thank you for being an important part of this boy growing into a man.

        Jim Healy is operations manager and editor for the Statesboro Herald. He may be reached at (912) 489-9402.