Muhammad Ali Life Lessons: Race Doesn’t Matter

Muhammad Ali Life Lessons – During the 2008 presidential campaign, as a white guy, I had no problem with a black person saying he was voting for Barack Obama because he’s black and he looks like me. To me that sentiment seemed logical because 38 years before Obama, due to Muhammad Ali fighting heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry in his comeback bout, I thought I should be rooting for Quarry because he was white and looked like me.

I grew up in a home in which my grandfather, an Italian immigrant and War veteran, had a big influence on my father who was named Rocky. My grandfather and father noticed race and color and lived in a world in which they felt better about themselves because Rocky Marciano, who was Italian, was the only undefeated heavyweight champion in history. And because Marciano was Italian it was instilled in me that he was the greatest heavyweight in history and surely in his prime would’ve not just defeated Muhammad Ali, but would’ve knocked him out.

My grandfather used to come to our house for dinner three Sundays a month during the late sixties through the mid-seventies. He loved boxing and despised Ali because he considered him a draft dodger and, in all honesty, couldn’t accept that a black man could possibly be the greatest heavyweight in history, a position reserved for Marciano and solidified because Rocky had knocked out Joe Louis. The fact that Louis was a fossil when Marciano knocked him out meant absolutely nothing to my grandfather.

My grandfather was a great man and extended a hand and money to anyone who needed it.  However, he couldn’t take a joke, especially if it was at the expense of Joe DiMaggio or Rocky Marciano. Well, it just so happened that I’ve always been a consistent stone breaker and can be pretty good at it. During those late Sunday afternoon spaghetti dinners at my house I used to badger my grandfather and say to him that Marciano was a short meatball that Ali would’ve sliced to ribbons had they fought in their prime.

My grandfather, Frank, couldn’t handle that his third oldest grandson could favor the black draft dodger over the white Italian slugger who never lost. Instead of getting mad at me he’d give my father a hard time and say to him, “what are you teaching this kid?” My father would respond, “Dad, it’s not me. He learns about Muhammad Ali reading all those damn boxing magazines in his room. I guess they’re saying Clay would’ve beat Marciano.” To which my grandfather responded, “Well don’t let the little SOB read them anymore.”

My harassment of my grandfather on Sundays led my father to forewarning me every Sunday morning that I was no longer allowed to tease him about Ali beating Marciano or I would be punished, so I had to stop and I did. However, I must confess that I was conflicted when Ali came back after his exile for draft refusal and was scheduled to fight the “white hope” Jerry Quarry. At that time I did want to see a white heavyweight champion who looked like me because Sonny Liston, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were dominating the division. At that time (I was between 10-13 years old) I was unsure if white fighters were as tough and strong as black fighters. Back then I thought it would be cool if the heavyweight champion looked like me — something that changed on the night of October 26th 1970 when Ali fought Jerry Quarry in his ring return.

During the days leading up to Ali-Quarry, I remember thinking that Ali would beat Quarry and then finally get a chance to fight and beat champion Joe Frazier. Outwardly I believed Ali would beat Frazier, but inside I wasn’t so sure. However, first he had to get past Quarry who was the top ranked contender in the division. I was thrilled about Ali’s return to the ring but inside I actually felt as if I should be rooting for Jerry to beat Muhammad because he was white and I could flex my muscles that the great Muhammad Ali lost to a white guy. But it didn’t work and no matter what I wrongly thought I should feel, my adulation for Ali was stronger and went far beyond race.

My father went to see the fight on closed circuit TV at the Cherry Hill arena in New Jersey. I was in sixth grade at the time and really messing up in school via getting bad grades and fighting with classmates. As a punishment my father went with a guy who worked for him and didn’t take me to see the Ali-Quarry bout. But he promised that he’d call my mother after the fight and tell her who won so she could tell me. That night while waiting for the phone to ring and thinking to myself……if my mother relays to me that Jerry Quarry beat Muhammad Ali, I’ll really be bummed out and sad. On the other hand if she tells me Ali won, I’ll be ecstatic and the world will seem in balance. And it was during those hours waiting to get word whether or not Ali beat Quarry that I realized just how little race or ethnicity mattered. I loved Ali so much that it didn’t make a difference that he didn’t look like me, he was a man before he was anything else and that’s all that mattered and he was my man.

From that point forward I remember watching boxing on TV and if a black fighter was facing a white fighter and I didn’t know anything about who they were, I rooted for the fighter whose style I liked better. Sometimes it was the black fighter and other times it was the white fighter, but race never was an issue. By the time Ali and Quarry fought a rematch in June of 1972, I was firmly rooting for Ali but still liked Quarry a lot. But while I was wholeheartedly invested in Ali winning, I didn’t want to see Quarry get beaten up or embarrassed.

Ten years (almost to the day) after Ali-Quarry II, Larry Holmes fought the new “white hope” Gerry Cooney. By that time I had been boxing for six years and noticing color in people was a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Promoter Don King did everything in his power to make it a fight between black and white so he could make more green. Going into the bout I was rooting for Holmes because I thought he paid his dues more as a fighter than had Cooney and I viewed Larry as the more authentic boxer. Interestingly, I got thrown out of the closed circuit showing of the Holmes-Cooney fight at the Coliseum in Voorhees, New Jersey during the 11th round because I had to be pulled off a guy who looked like me who I got into a scrap with because he said something very offensive as I was rooting and cheering loudly for Holmes to win.

It’s important to talk about how, among Ali’s many achievements, he changed people’s hearts. It’s easy for me to admit that I was a kid who identified with white fighters because they represented me (in my mind anyway). When I was a pre-teen part of me felt that a win by Ali over Quarry was a win over me. So my sense of self-worth was very tied into white identification.  Ali allowed me to grow (he did this for millions of others too) and realize race and color didn’t matter.

In order to see further than I had seen before, I needed courage.  And a lot of that courage came from Muhammad Ali who was the biggest influence of my life.

Muhammad Ali Life Lessons

Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com

 

 

Comment on this article

COMMENTS

-Radam G :

Nice copy. But a lot of the old timers told and tell me that boksing has always been more about ethnicity, creed and locale than race. And it is was as natural as the sun for Italians to cheer against Irish and Polish to cheer against Scots, etc., etc. And all of these groups often cheered for a black or brown guy if he were not fighting one in their group. Or if he were "a mixed guy" of their group and/or race. And or if he were a local boy. There is always exceptions to every rule. And too much of a play on race. "Unforgivable Blackness" Jack Johnson was largely successful in the early 1900s because he had a white Texas gambler behind him. Johnson pursuing the world champ from Canada all over the world was a promotion gimmick by Tex Rickard -- a Texas marshal and a relative of the Prez of the USA, who was secretly a negrophile. Rickard, with his paradoxical love for Johnson, was called what the author of this piece was called for cheering for the late, great GOAT Ali, who is part Irish anyway, and would let ev'ybodee and dey momma know it. The dynamics of boxing is a strange animal with a lot of paradigms. Few things in diz hurt bitnezz are black and white. Gray diz, dat and da third is all up in da grill. And over and over, a special one brings a fascinating, unbelievable thrill. Holla!


-Kid Blast :

For King, Holmes vs. Cooney equaled .


-deepwater2 :

For King, Holmes vs. Cooney equaled .
That's spot on.


-Coxs Corner :

For someone who came off, at least early in his career, as a black militant he sure did make a lot of white kids love him. He was the reason I started watching boxing in the first place.


-DaveB :

Even if some people don't want to admit it, Ali transcended boxing. I remember reading Ali say that in the build up to the fight with Jerry Quarry how he played around with Jerry's son and became his "friend" at press conferences. The night of the fight Quarry's son was there live to see his "friend" box his father. He was happy to see his "friend" Ali in the ring before the fight and was playful toward him. He thought his "friend" was up there playing with his father until he saw his "friend" bloodying up and beating up his father. Ali said in his book the boy was so confused during the fight as he realized his "friend" wasn't his friend. After the fight Jerry's son cried hysterically. Ali said when he wanted to reach out and comfort the boy the most he couldn't. Naturally as with most human beings that bothered Ali a great deal. Ali faced a lot of racism in his life and became a Black Muslim (in those days) for that reason but the enigma of Muhammad Ali was the man loved all people, especially kids, regardless of color. That was his true self.


-Radam G :

Even if some people don't want to admit it, Ali transcended boxing. I remember reading Ali say that in the build up to the fight with Jerry Quarry how he played around with Jerry's son and became his "friend" at press conferences. The night of the fight Quarry's son was there live to see his "friend" box his father. He was happy to see his "friend" Ali in the ring before the fight and was playful toward him. He thought his "friend" was up there playing with his father until he saw his "friend" bloodying up and beating up his father. Ali said in his book the boy was so confused during the fight as he realized his "friend" wasn't his friend. After the fight Jerry's son cried hysterically. Ali said when he wanted to reach out and comfort the boy the most he couldn't. Naturally as with most human beings that bothered Ali a great deal. Ali faced a lot of racism in his life and became a Black Muslim (in those days) for that reason but the enigma of Muhammad Ali was the man loved all people, especially kids, regardless of color. That was his true self.
Wow! Amazing stuff. Something that I didn't even know. I gotta holla at the Q Fam about it. Holla!


-brownsugar :

Even if some people don't want to admit it, Ali transcended boxing. I remember reading Ali say that in the build up to the fight with Jerry Quarry how he played around with Jerry's son and became his "friend" at press conferences. The night of the fight Quarry's son was there live to see his "friend" box his father. He was happy to see his "friend" Ali in the ring before the fight and was playful toward him. He thought his "friend" was up there playing with his father until he saw his "friend" bloodying up and beating up his father. Ali said in his book the boy was so confused during the fight as he realized his "friend" wasn't his friend. After the fight Jerry's son cried hysterically. Ali said when he wanted to reach out and comfort the boy the most he couldn't. Naturally as with most human beings that bothered Ali a great deal. Ali faced a lot of racism in his life and became a Black Muslim (in those days) for that reason but the enigma of Muhammad Ali was the man loved all people, especially kids, regardless of color. That was his true self.
Great comments DaveB. That was the beauty of Ali, he wasn't the pinnacle of perfection as much as he was simply a man who was able to communicate what it was like to be black in America in terms that everyone could emphasize with. Ali was so angered by racism that he said early in his career that he agreed with George Wallace that blacks and whites should be remain separated if whites hated him so much. Clearly that was the anger of being unequal speaking. But that's what we loved about Ali, the man simply wouldn't shut up, right or wrong you knew how he felt. I think Ali's position was tempered and eventually modified greatly when he realized how much he was loved on a universal basis and that's when he started to cultivate his universal appeal so that his influence would be more effective on a global scale. Not in the way a politician campaigns for votes, but as an individual who wanted to make a positive contribution to the world. Great story Frank, I enjoyed reading about a your candid revelation that was essentially universal in its effect. Dispite the spelling of your last name,. I always thought you were a Nu Yorican criminal mastermind who was from the hell's kitchen part of town and eventually had an epiphany about your place in life as a crime lord,. ...so you decided to box your way past the demons that held you bound in the gang life... ( well I wasn't too far off Boxing used to be part of my daily existence when I was a kid. I couldn't fight because it took too much practice learning to keep my eyes open while punches were flying at my face. I wasn't cut out for it although I would try again later after being discharged from the military. ( Nothing like being exposed to 3rd world ghettos to get you better prepared to fight, infact the entire navy experience was a ghetto to me) But I make a much better spectator....lol. Being a boxer was one of the rare career paths where the disenfranchised could obtain, at least in part, a sliver of equality, and a baby sized portion of the American dream. It's no wonder that it's ranks were flooded with black men and other minorities at the time. We know now that no racial archetype or ethnic group has a genetic advantage in the brutal sport of boxing, .....the great divider is determination, training and discipline. Which is evident by the shift in the numbers of excellent fighters coming from remote regions such as the eastern bloc. And I'm happy with that because it forces everyone else to rise up to the new standards or remain forever second best. Boxing has always been a game of catch-up as much as it's been about the will too succeed. Fighters will always swap and evolve training techniques and fitness routines.and some guys will intuitively know what to do in order to ascend to the next level. Great article.


-Kid Blast :

In many ways. the sport of boxing tends to remove racism from the equation. When you see a blond kid from Minnesota hugging an African American from Chicago after 3 rounds of furious action, that chill that goes down your spine helps to negate feelings of racial demarcation. However, the horrific stuff that appears on Facebook serves to intensify it. Time Facebook woke up with what it is doing.


-brownsugar :

Yep I have blocked two accounts so far.


-Radam G :

In many ways. the sport of boxing tends to remove racism from the equation. When you see a blond kid from Minnesota hugging an African American from Chicago after 3 rounds of furious action, that chill that goes down your spine helps to negate feelings of racial demarcation. However, the horrific stuff that appears on Facebook serves to intensify it. Time Facebook woke up with what it is doing.
From what I gather, the game has always been less racist than any society or any other sport. The game has always had the tendency to be a cheat in regards to locality, nationality, regionalism, creed and ethnicity everywhere you go. Thanks to Heaven that I never go to Facebook for boxing news. Holla!