I was a United States Navy veteran protesting the Vietnam War when I learned Ali had refused induction into the Army. At the time I was a raging boxing fan and followed Ali’s every move, but nothing he did increased my respect for him more than this act of conscience in full public view. For my generation Ali was a force, a kind of archetype that crossed race, language and time. To hear this voice, this rhyming poet, this public conscience at a time of war-mongering and political mendacity was indeed a breath of fresh air. His brashness, talent and raw beauty mattered a lot but so did his carriage, his impish majesty and his spiritual center.
I recall seeing Ali fight Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” on a wide screen in an agricultural hall at the Allentown, PA, Fairgrounds. The place was noisy. There was a large contingent of people, mainly men, from the Lehigh Valley region who wanted Frazier to beat Ali to a pulp. The “draft dodger” chant was in the air. Police were out in force, patting people down, checking for booze, weapons and drugs.
The following poem, “With Ali in AG Hall,” published in 1984 in “That Kingdom Coming Business,” is not a blow-by-blow but a poem about how Ali touched the minds, hearts and souls of fans. Old men who remember Sugar Ray Robinson losing to Randy Turpin fill the air with anecdotes. Ali is everywhere: “You came in a wind. You were our third wish, our first hope.”