The Greatest In Every Way


Leonard Zwelling

         My Dad had a rehearsal for a show he was doing that night.
The fight wasn’t on TV so we were all listening on the radio. I guess my father
returned home at about ten o’clock and asked how badly he had gotten beaten by
Sonny Liston. My friend Anthony was taking bets at 7 to 1 on Liston.

         “He won.”

         “I know he won,” said my father. “In which round did he
knock him out?”

         “No. Liston didn’t come out for the seventh.”

         “I don’t believe you.”

         Neither did my friend Anthony. He lost over $100 and that
was real money in high school.

         My father had to turn on the nightly news to come to grips
with the fact that Cassius Clay was the new heavyweight champion of the world.
Not for long. He was Muhammad Ali soon enough, and the rest, as they say, is

         I have been thinking about this day a great deal for obvious
reasons. The Champ is gone and there will never be another like him—in so many

         Muhammad Ali was the single most important athlete of the 20th
century and perhaps behind only Albert Einstein, FDR, Ike and Winston Churchill, the most important human of the century. The only other athlete close to The
Greatest in importance was Billie Jean King. Note how all the non-athletes did
their best work before 1950 and were instrumental in WWII.

Ali was the most recognizable face of the television era and as such, the most
famous man on the planet. There was no place he could go and not be recognized
and adored and it wasn’t just because of what he did in the ring. In fact, his
boxing accomplishments were only the beginning of the story.

         As has been told numerous times over the past week or so, he
lost three critical years in his prime because, as George Carlin noted, “if he
wasn’t willing to kill for his country then his country would prevent him from
he beating people up for a living.”

         But even after he got back in the ring, his victories were
only the start of yet another chapter of good works, high principles and
constant entertainment. As we will all hear on Friday, this was a great, great
human being. He was generous, caring, and human in every way, making errors in
judgment and words, but never, ever being misconstrued as being mean of spirit,
because he was not.

am thinking of this because what we have on display in our public life now is
the antithesis of everything Ali stood for.

he was always the People’s Champion. He was the opposite of an elitist. He made
anyone to whom he was talking feel special. Race was not a factor in the love
he reflected in that very pretty face. Without him there would have been no
Howard Cosell and without Cosell, no Ali. They were co-dependent builders of
each other’s legends.

even when he said some things that put him in a less than favorable light,
no one mistook Ali for a bully. Despite the fact he made his name beating
people up, it was never in anger and always with style. He was, before anything
else a great, great boxer. Now that I box for fitness (no ring time and no one
punching back), I have come to appreciate what he did even more. He was a great

he was a great man, fighting for what he believed in and watching as the world
came around to his point of view about race, poverty and people.

one would ever confuse Muhammad Ali with Donald Trump or other leaders who
berate their opponents, seek to eliminate all competition and dissent, and
belittle those with whom they disagree, although Ali’s mouth did get out of control at times and his slurs on Joe Frazier inflicted unnecessary pain. Even Mrs. Clinton has been reduced to
name-calling. I happen to agree with Mr. Trump being a fraud, but she should
only be attacking his ideas, not him, no matter what he does. His ideas are
un-American enough. There is no need to attack his character no matter what he
chooses to do or say about a sitting American-born federal judge whose decisions he does not like.

goes for people in our national life and for some in the life of academic
medicine. There are no places where bullies are welcomed and there should not
be. That dissent and well-meaning disagreement should be silenced by removing
people of talent, while intimidating and frightening those left, is
reprehensible and bears no resemblance to the tenets of Ali.

if we only had a champion like The Greatest in academic medicine. Where have
all those people gone?

Leonard Zwelling