I was 14 when I placed a bet on Muhammad Ali to beat Joe Frazier in their first fight. There was something magical about Ali, like the first time I heard Ray Charles sing "America The Beautiful" or Louie Armstrong blow the trumpet -- feeling as if they could influence the cosmos, make anything right when they performed. Maybe that was why I made the wager without the money to pay. Ali had to win; things just wouldn't be right if he didn't. Clouds have moved to Ray's rhythm; the heavens have applauded Louie's horn, but never has a bookmaker given a pass on a bet. It took me two weeks to come up with the money.
Despite that wrinkle in the universe, my faith in Ali never wavered. Like a tree with deep roots, I already had done some growing with him. I believed what he said, not necessarily that he'd knock out each opponent in a designated round, but there was something you could count on in this man. When I heard him say he would not be drafted to fight in Vietnam, that he would rather give up his title, his money, even his life, I did not agree with him, but I believed him. I understood that when someone was willing to lose all that he had worked a lifetime to gain, it didn't mean he was right, but it meant he had something that very few others do: the strength to make a belief meaningful.
What is life if there's nothing to believe in, and how do we believe if there is no risk? At that early age, I trusted Ali. As I grew and saw politicians, athletes and movie stars protesting the apartheid government of South Africa, I remember never feeling the same trust that I had with Ali. I thought again of his refusal to fight in Vietnam as many boxers, promoters and others put on events in South Africa.
I also remember being told that to be a good fighter, one has to practice jabbing thousands of times. To be strong, one needs years of exercise and miles of roadwork. To withstand a body punch, the stomach had to be hardened with sit-ups. And only years of sparring could lead to poise under pressure. As I watched Ali stand up to the undefeated monster of George Foreman in what was then Zaire, I'll always remember how small Foreman seemed as the fight wore on.
I remembered the lessons of how a fighter is made strong, chiseled by the rounds on the bag, the early hours on dark roads. I also thought of the time Ali had stood up and made choices years ago -- how he had not weakened during those 3½ years of exile, how he had come back finally and beaten Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, both top-rated fighters, only weeks after his suspension had been lifted. I thought of how he got off the floor with a young, active Joe Frazier. I realized this is where a man, a special man, is formed. It is not just the physical and aerobic work put in during all those years in the gym. It was the commitment to stand by in what he believed.
I understood how he could stare down that bully in the ring in Africa. He had looked something much harder straight in the eye years earlier; he had come face to face with temptation, the choice between himself and his faith. He had already gone toe to toe with something much harder than a 6-foot-3, 220-pound man; he had battled with his conscience and he had won. I could finally recoup that lost wager. Ali ruled Africa that night, and when it was over, there was applause from the skies, bouquets of rain soaking the small nation.
As I reflect on these memories of Ali, I think of another lesson I've learned, this one from my father. That night was clear at the open-air stadium in Zaire. I was looking at the sky and I asked my dad why some of the stars seemed to flicker with their light. He said it was because those stars no longer existed, but that their light was so powerful and had traveled so far, that even now, years after they had gone, they continued to shine through. It seemed right then just as it does now. Ali's light shines through.