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Ali vs. Rocky

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By John Shindlebower

The Greatest!

That’s the self-imposed title Muhammad Ali gave himself early in his career, and the same title most pundits have used to describe him over the past several days in the wake of his death Friday at the age of 74.

Ali was indeed one of the greatest to ever step into the ring. He was pure showman, able to capture and keep an audience’s attention, and he introduced a fresh, new boastfulness into the world of sports. We can debate about whether that was good or bad, but Ali made it fun.

Ali, from the impoverished west-end of Louisville, was a brilliant mind. He was articulate, witty, charming, and even as Parkinson’s disease ravaged his body and eventually took his voice, Ali remained one of the most recognizable and influential faces in all the world.

For all that he was, however, I cannot call him a hero, nor can I call him the greatest.

Perhaps it was youth, but Ali got caught up in a lot of the turmoil of the 1960s and was soon recruited by one of the most radical groups of that era, the Nation of Islam. He disavowed the Christian faith of his youth for an angry brand of Islam, and was soon echoing much of the racial hatred that just sparked further division in a nation already torn apart.

In 1967, Ali’s number came up with Selective Service, meaning he was going to be drafted into the Army. Famous athletes and entertainers were not immune to the draft, although more often than not, the Army saw it beneficial to put these celebrity soldiers in safer, behind-the-front-line positions where they would boost morale and serve a public relations role.

Ali cited his Muslim faith as reason for pacifism and said he would not go to war. He declined to be inducted into the Army and was convicted, stripped of his World Heavyweight Title and barred from professional boxing for more than three years.
America makes room for conscientious objectors; unfortunately, he didn’t stop there. Ali made comments equating U.S. soldiers in Vietnam to murderers and baby killers, comments that just spread the hatred that many had for the U.S. military. It was the type of hatred that caused protestors to spit on U.S. soldiers in airports as they returned to the states after serving their nation.

During this same era, there was another athlete who was called into duty by Uncle Sam. His name was Rocky Bleier. Rocky had just finished a promising rookie season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. When his number was called, he exchanged his football uniform for that of a soldier and volunteered for duty in South Vietnam as an infantryman.

Ali spent the late ‘60s on college campuses, rousing the leftist angst of college students against the war, making thousands of dollars on the speaking circuit.
Meanwhile, Rocky marched though the jungles and rice paddies. On August 20, 1969, Rocky’s patrol was ambushed, and he was shot in the thigh. He went to the ground, and moments later, a grenade went off, taking off a portion of his right foot as well.

Ali got a reprieve when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction, opening the door for him to return to the ring in 1971.

About the same time, Rocky had been told by doctors he would never play football again. But he was determined. He worked out, he overcame the limp, and he rejoined the Steelers in 1971, but it took him another two seasons to actually reclaim his spot on the roster. In 1974, he became a starter.

For six seasons, Rocky ran and blocked. He gained 1,000 yards one season, earned four Super Bowl rings and rushed for nearly 4,000 yards, caught over 130 passes and scored 25 touchdowns for Pittsburgh.

Much has been made about the “sacrifices” made by Ali during the three plus years he was banned from boxing. It’s said that he lost millions in winnings because the ban came during his prime.

Just as we should be careful how we use the word “hero,” let’s also be careful how we use the word “sacrifice.”  There are 58,000 names etched in stone on a wall in Washington, D.C., that mark those who truly sacrificed during this era. By comparison, Ali was merely inconvenienced.

But for the sports fan who wonders just how much greater Ali’s career could have been had he not experienced that interruption, let’s be fair and consider that Rocky Bleier’s four years away from football cost him greatly as well.

Consider that David Robinson, one of the greatest NBA players of all time, delayed his professional playing days because of his commitment to country, serving two years active duty in the U.S. Navy after his collegiate days at the U.S. Naval Academy.

And never forget that one of baseball’s greats, - Ted Williams, gave up multiple years during his prime in World War II, and again during the Korean War as a fighter pilot. Williams, considered one of the best hitters to ever play the game, might even be at the head of the all-time home run list had he not missed those seasons.

I don’t mean for this to be a hit piece on Ali. The man was extremely intelligent, and watching him in interviews makes you wish more athletes today could be half as cerebral and thought-provoking.

In many ways, he was a wonderful ambassador for the city of Louisville, and I’ve enjoyed hearing and reading some touching stories of people who came face to face with the man who was often gracious with his time and his money. It was refreshing that no matter how big his stage was across the globe, he never forgot where he was from. The fact that he wished to be laid to rest in Louisville is something for which the city can be proud.

I believe Ali likely set aside some of his radical ways as he grew older, but sadly, in later years, he was unable to express himself well because of the disease that wore him down unlike any opposing fighter ever could. I often wonder how many statements supposedly coming from Ali actually were his thoughts, as opposed to his handlers who may have been working to uphold the image that had been cast decades before.

Ali’s death is certainly a newsworthy event. He was a legend, a champion and a larger-than-life figure for people all over the world.

But was he a hero? Was he the greatest? Some may say he was, and they’re entitled to that opinion.

As for me, there is only One who is the Greatest, and there are plenty of heroes in this world. I just happen to reserve the loudest applause for those whose battles ended not with the clanging of a ringside bell, but with the lonely sound of Taps echoing from a bugle.