LONGSHOTS: Six degrees of Muhammad Ali
Clay-Liston anniversary offers look at the past
by Dave Long
My favorite political columnist is Kathleen Parker of the Orlando Sentinel, who appears on a regular basis in this state’s largest newspaper. Whether I agree with her or not, she is interesting to read because, unlike just about every other conservative writer known to mankind, she doesn’t hit you over the head with it. Instead, she makes an argument based in logic, rather than bombast, and lets readers decide for themselves. Wish I was like that.
On Washington’s birthday she wrote of the stunning lack of knowledge recent college grads have of history. Since no one besides Magic Johnson and Dan Shaughnessy lives in the past more than me, this naturally got my attention. While I do agree, I still can’t fathom how the path taken to get to where we are now isn’t of at least passing interest to the great silent majority. Yet, it isn’t. Then again, Larry King and Nancy Grace probably can’t grasp how I’d prefer needles being stuck in my eyes over facing 10 days of wall-to-wall coverage on the sad passing of Anna Nicole Smith. So I guess it takes all kind.
Then there’s my friend Pete Tarrier of (plug, plug) WGAM All Sports Radio. Anytime I brought up something from before 1994 on a show we did on another station he’d give me a look like I just knocked over his bosco. He didn’t think many cared about the olden days, to which my response was, “too bad, maybe they’ll learn something.” I’ll admit more stations don’t do it, like WEEI, where they must threaten hosts and guests alike with the cattle prod treatment if they linger on the too-distant past. Instead it’s generally goofed on because they say nobody cares. Their concern is the tune-out factor, which is what history teachers all over the country face on a daily basis.
Since I certainly spent enough time daydreaming class time away, I feel uniquely qualified to hold court on this topic. I say humbug to the tune-out factor. The fact is, good hosts and, more importantly, the best teachers find a way to make things interesting. You’ve just got to find the right hook, even if it means getting attention of uninspired students through the back door so don’t even realize they’re learning about history.
For instance, if the 1960s is the lesson, I’d start with Muhammad Ali. To those with the raised eyebrows, here are three reasons why. First because he’s a sports figure and it will move the tune-out factor for some a little farther off. Then, he’s funny and would make the class laugh. I’d show them videos of press conferences, weigh-ins and anything with Howard Cosell. Once laughing, a curiosity follows for who he was/is and that’s like an encyclopedia salesman getting his foot inside the door jamb. The third reason is, while he obviously was not the seminal figure, he was in his way at the forefront of the two biggest stories of that decade — civil rights and Viet Nam.
Ali’s a timely figure this week as well. Forty-three years ago Sunday, he shocked the sports world by beating 7-1 favorite Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title in Miami Beach. That win came at the penultimate period of the ’60s where the decade’s biggest cultural themes of violence, rebellion, the Cold War and a musical revolution converged within a few months of each other. It came two months after President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Headlines in the New York Times the morning of the fight said Russia warns the U.S. not to escalate troop deployments in Viet Nam and “vowed necessary support to the North.” The Beatles made their American debut in the first of three appearances on the Ed Sullivan show earlier that month and later met the challenger at training camp during their second Sullivan gig, which took place in Miami. Then there’s the presence of Malcolm X, the Black Muslims and changing his name to Ali from what he called his slave name, Cassius Clay. Starting with him can pretty much tak
e you anywhere else you need to go in the 1960s, including youthful rebellion, music, television’s indelible imprint on the culture, sports’ crazy grasp on the culture and even to the Cold War, as Viet Nam was simply a byproduct of the post-World War II struggle between the U. S. and Russia.
And since this is a visual age, my next move would be to take a field trip to the Muhammad Ali museum put together by my friend Steve Singer. He’d probably call it his collection, but whatever it is, it dominates the offices at Merchant Motors in Hooksett. It has rare photos and famous posters from his fights. There’s a ring with a life-sized Ali inside and an array of three-dimensional animation art from friend and business partner Ron Proulx. Then there’s my personal favorite, a framed collection of autographs from all the 50 guys Ali fought except one, long-deceased Jim Robinson, who was the opponent in the champ’s fourth professional fight. While the stories from Singer’s hunt to track them all down are worth the visit alone, they’ll have to wait for another day. One does offers a bit of international intrigue, as he spent a year finding his way through South American roadblocks to buy the passport of Alfredo Evangelista from a sister living in Argentina.
Teaching like this might be unorthodox. But it’s time for the folks who’d fire me because “we never did it that way before” to stop whining and find a better way to get kids interested. Understanding Ali’s controversial refusal to enter the military after being drafted in the face of massive opposition could shine new light on the dissent building for the war in Iraq today. It gave added momentum to a growing anti-war movement which nearly tore the country apart. Regardless of where you stand on the war, I think it’s a valuable story to know why he did it and what followed.
It’s more proof that history matters and we need to all put our heads together to find a way to help more young people better understand that. And if the story of Ali and others like him is a way to do that, that’s fine with me.
Dave Long is host of Home Team Saturday with Dave Long and Company, 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday morning on WGAM (1250 AM in Manchester and 900 AM in Nashua).