Our American icon: remembering Muhammad Ali

FitzbeatsquareMuhammad Ali must be the greatest. The American Icon passed away last Friday at age 74.

Ali, the 1960 Olympic Gold Medal-winner, was a three-time heavyweight champion and remarkable philanthropist. Has there ever been an American male athlete who sacrificed more of himself for what he believed in his heart was right for social change?

During the three years from age 25, after being drafted by the U.S. to serve in Vietnam, Ali said no, he would not go. Most men, as we know, get drafted into Armed Forces service from age 17-20. Why did the Armed Forces select him so late? Because he was a champion? Because they could?

Ali, strangely, was selected at age 25 shortly after he had soundly beaten Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali was defiant, standing tall for what he believed in.

Muhammad Ali and Larry Fitzgerald, Jr.
Muhammad Ali and Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. (Photo courtesy of Celebrity Fight Night Foundation)

In my view, his Supreme Court victory years later was the single greatest victory for social change in American history: a Black man with the courage and conviction to fight for his life and sacrifice his accomplishments and not just settle because America said you have to do this because they said so. He started it by changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

In the turbulent 1960s, our leaders Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson, all fighting for us, stood in support of Ali’s right to not serve based on his religious belief as a Muslim and a member of the separatist Nation of Islam. So many Whites in this country hated Ali for that decision. The mainstream media castigated him, and award-winning columnists like Red Smith slammed Ali in print.

They called him defiant and no more than another punk protesting against his country and the war through demonstration. It set the tone for St. Louis Cardinals star Curt Flood battling baseball and the reserve clause. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

NBA star Lew Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and said, “I may be 7 feet, 2 inches, but I never felt taller than when standing in his [Ali’s] shadow.” Over the last 10 years I got to know Ali and his wife Lonnie better through the remarkable Foundation “Fight Night” in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve attended many events as Ali raised millions of dollars for Parkinson’s disease. His dad had it also; it had nothing to do with boxing.

My son Larry Jr. stars for the Arizona Cardinals. He connected me with the Cardinals’ team physician, Doctor Wayne E. Kuhl, and he has been my physician. He has been Ali’s personal doctor as well for many years, and several times while I was visiting with the doctor on my health issues, his next patient was the greatest Ali on the same day.

I can’t tell you how many times I pinched myself and looked to the heavens. Me and Ali with the same doctor — unbelievable.

Ali was the man for me throughout my 37 years of reporting. He set the tone, and through his sacrifice for right he taught me and millions that life is about having the courage to fight for what is right and hold those who are shortsighted and wrong accountable. Thank you, Champ. It’s no secret you are the Greatest of All Time. And always will be.


Larry Fitzgerald can be heard weekday mornings on KMOJ Radio 89.9 FM at 8:25 am, on WDGY-AM 740 Monday-Friday at 12:17 pm and 4:17 pm, and at www.Gamedaygold.com. He also commentates on sports 7-8 pm on Almanac (TPT channel 2). Follow him on Twitter at FitzBeatSr. Larry welcomes reader responses to info@larry-fitzgerald.com, or visit www.Larry-Fitzgerald.com.