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Last Thursday night, Muhammad Ali, minister of the Lost Found Nation of Islam in North American and heavy-weight fighter, spoke at Boston University's Sargent Gym at the invitation of B.U.'s Martin Luther King, Jr. Afre-American Center in conjunction with the University's Distinguished Lecture Series. Ali, who has made 22 college lectures since the so-called "Fight of the Century," was scheduled to appear the previous Thursday; however, negotiations for a fight with basketbaill player Wilt Chamberlain had prevented him from making the appearance. Consequently, the crowd of 800, roughly half black, half white, was all the more anxious for the arrival of the man Huey Newton and others call "The People's Champion of the World."
TEN minutes before the announced 8 p.m. starting time of the lecture, the crowd was informed that Ali would not appear until 8:30. Something was mentioned about an airline delay. Such an explanation might have been easily accepted were some other figure, a Marcuse or a Galbraith, to be late; but Ali, like so many other black people of prominence, has been so immersed in an atmosphere of violent ephemerality that the explanation seemed an awkward cover-up of shadier dealings. Someone in the crowd said, "Maybe the pigs have got him won't let him show."
Nonetheless, the crowd settled back, expecting a half hour wait. However, at about five past eight, Ali, dressed in a thin-striped, vested, grey suit and a sky-blue tie, with his wife, Belinda, and a small entourage of B.U. officials, entered the gym. After a moment of collective disbelief, the crowd broke into an applause which quickly became a standing ovation. As if following some ancient ritual of court. Ali, whose style of movement outside the ring is that same electric grace of the floating butterfly with the sting of a bee, only slower, so that it may be observed easily by the naked eve, moved with the lecture officials and a small police escort to the right side of the stage; while his wife, dressed in the long, dark gown of the Muslim woman and an incaradine scarf covering her hair and neck, walked with an elegance of her own as she was accompanied to her seat on the opposite side of the stage. Ali's police escort seemed the ultimate superfluity. Ali's presence is so commanding as to appear capable of arresting a bullet or blow in mid-flight, like Joshua halting the sun.
ALI was introduced by Richie Taylor, a B.U. student and the school's first Rhodes Scholar who said, "To know that Muhammad Ali is only a boxer is not to know him at all, for the man before us tonight represents more than physical perfection. He embodies all the mental and cultural strength of all people of color that exist in the world." Taylor concluded by alluding to Huey Newton's statement that "it's not imperative that he [Ali] win the fight in the ring, but that he continue to win the fight in the universe."
Ali stepped to the podium to another standing ovation, and motioning the crowd to be seated, said that the applause was not necessary. After thanking Taylor for his introduction, he said, "I'm not here to cop any pleas about losing the decision to Joe Frazier. You can't take nothing from Joe Frazier. He's not skillful, but he's awful strong."
The People's Champ was interrupted by laughter and applause. The crowd was now an audience.
Ali indicated that "the draft thing and the black-white struggle and everything else that I'm involved in had to have some effect on the decision." But he promised to minimize such influences in the projected Frazier rematch. "Next time we'll try to fix it where there's no doubt; because he must go out."
Out, out brief champ. The crowd applauded in agreement.
Before turning to the topic of his lecture, Ali apologized for having missed his previous engagement, and went on to explain that he had almost been forced to cancel this appearance on account of another scheduling conflict. He was supposed to appear at an honorary dinner at a New Jersey high school. Not wanting "to say I couldn't make it again," he cancelled the New Jersey engagement after reimbursing the $1,500 that had been spent for dinner for 300. "But I learned one thing. I'll never make all these commitments on the same day. I'm good but not that good."
Ali shifted gears smoothly in addressing himself to his topic, "The Purpose of Life," a subject chosen because of its universal relevance and treated it more as a dynamic than as a dialectic. The premise of his 35 minute lecture was that "every intelligent person comes to a stage in life... when he begins to question himself as to what purpose is there in life." For in his prior existence, "whatever a person's position or condition in life might be, whether this is a wise man or a foolish man, whether this is an educated man or an illiterate man, if he knows not his life's purpose, then he remains discontented.
"Every living being, every one of you here today was put here, was born, was created for a purpose, and it's the knowing of that purpose that enables every soul to fulfill it.... And as long as a person don't know that purpose he remains ignorant of life. He's just like a machine... A machine can not find its life's purpose, but an individual is responsible to a greater sense."
However, as is indicated by the prevalence of dissatisfaction throughout all strata of society, only a small minority of people have discovered this vital sense of purpose. The rest are in a state of drift in which they whirl in a gyre of idle pleasures, mistaking each new sensation as the incarnation of true happiness. "But pleasure is just the shadow of happiness." Ali said, for it fails to incorporate "the very secret of life, the desire to achieve something."
Though the goals men set for themselves need not be of Olympic proportions, Ali discriminates them from the desire "to secure some rank, position or pleasure they covet at the moment... Some of you fells are probably unhappy because there's some woman that you want that don't want you-(laughter and applause)-same with you ladies. How many of you saw a girl that made you say, 'boy, ain't she beautiful. If I could only make her mine, if I could win her love, that's all I need...' And as soon as you get her, and as soon as she tells you she loves you, you're looking at another one."
In the part of the lecture that drew the longest sustained audience response, Ali spoke of what had been his own original "purpose in life."
"I wanted to be the world's greatest fighter at 11-years-old... I wanted to be the greatest of all time. I heard Rocky Marciano defend his title when I was a little boy. On the radio the man said. 'And still the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Rocky Marciano.' I rode off in the rain that night on my bicycle... and I said, 'Just think the champion of the whole world. (Ali snapped his fingers) He can whip every man in Russia-(laughter and applause)-every man in China.... The champion of the whole world. And my purpose at 11-years-old was to win that world heavyweight title. And not only to win the world heavyweight title but to be a black champion who didn't go off and marry out of his race. To be a black champion who stood up and told it like it is. To be a black champion who walked up and down the alleys and streets of the ghettos, and picked up the little babies-"
The applause was loud with many people standing. Ali did not wait for it to stop, but continued in a lower voice.
"I gave it up for three and a half years. They tried me. But I was let back on my terms.... I'm still just like I always was.
"So that was my purpose, and I've accomplished it. Now I have another purpose."
Returning to his core topic, Ali indicated that there has been a general failure on the part of the institutions of this country to aid the individual in his discovering of his purpose in life. Most institutions have been counter-productive, hindering the individual from finding his purpose by wasting his time in meaningless actions. Although this problem is now reaching epidemic proportions within the white community, it has long been virtually pandemic among black Americans. However, "There is a man in America named Elijah Muhammad. His followers are called Muslims. Not even one per cent of the black people in American follow Elijah Muhammad. And out of all the 30 million black people in America-take your Urban League, your NAACP, your CORE, take all your black power groups, and they don't match one-quarter of the progress and power Elijah Muhammad is making with cleaning up dope addicts, wineheads, prostitutes, lesbians... buying airplanes, farm lands, factories, schools, newspaper plants... [The Muslims are] 300,000 people with a purpose, with a knowledge of their purpose, and nobody can match them..."
Ali concluded his lecture by reiterating the importance of purpose. 'When you find that purpose, nothing should stop you. In spite of all difficulties you should go ahead... You should go after that purpose at the sacrifice of everything; because when the sacrifice is great the gain in the end gives greater power and greater inspiration.
"I know my purpose. I had to sacrifice the title for three and a half years, lost about 10 million dollars in commercials... still might be five years in jail. But the power that I have gained, the people I draw, the national and international respect that I have is more greater than if I had whipped fifty Joe Fraziers."
Ali does not really lecture; he preaches. He aims primarily at the spirit as opposed to the intellect or the emotions. There's a strain of the old-fashioned Baptist wailer in him, yet it has been disciplined so that he is never out of control. His speech is well-modulated and understated without lending the impression that he is holding anything back. His high regard for Elijah Muhammad is well-evident in his lecture style without becoming an affectation. He presents himself as Ali, and Elijah Muhammad is an integral component of that identity.
After the lecture, Ali recited one of his poems, "Better Far," which he introduced as a "black militant freedom poem." The verse was about a young black from Mississippi who at age ten had seen a black man lynched by the Klan, and had later had "bad experiences with the worst of the whites." He had gone north to Brooklyn where he joined the Panthers, and at the time of the poem was involved with 49 other Panthers in a rooftop shoot-out against the police. After all the other Panthers had been either shot or had surrendered, he remained for he "had a purpose in life... to die. Die fighting for black people's freedom." A fate he viewed as "better than with prayers and pleas/ in the clutch of some disease/ wasting slowly by degrees. / Better than of heart attack/ Or some dose of drug I lack/ Let me die by being black." The shoot-out continued until one of the police officers tried to coax the re-remaining Panther to surrender. But he refused, ending his statement with, "We came in chains and now your choice must be/ To either blow out all our brains of else just set us free."
Ali's inflection on the word "free" and earlier on "die" revealed the terminal nature which he seems to see in his own alternatives. This is reminiscent of the way Martin Luther King spoke towards the end of his life. Thus, it was a very appropriate way in which to end his formal presentation at B.U., the school at which King earned his doctorate.
A OUESTION and answer period followed Ali's poetry reading. The first question set the light tone that prevailed the rest of the night. A white student asked if Ali thought that the proposed Chamberlain bout would "be degrading to the art of boxing." Ali replied, "You go out on the street and find me just one black man who can't fight."
However, after introducing his wife Relinda. "the lady who trapped the King of the World." and calling her up to stand with him on the podium (because, he said, he had seen some men trying to flirt with her. He later warned them, "Boy, you'd rather be caught in Vietnam with a BB gun.") Ali made a clear distinction as to which black man can fight the best and why. He made a poetic predic-tion for the Frazier rematch, "... then Ali lands with a right, what a beautiful swing/ and the punch lifts Frazier clean out of the ring/ ... Who have thought when they came to the fight/ That they would witness the launching of a colored satellite."
When asked why he had lost the last fight, and what adjustments he intended to make for the rematch, Ali responded, "I played with him about three rounds-agitating and clowning and showing the critics... signifying... [But] anybody that saw the film knows that he took a terrible whooping.... I hope he's not seriously hurt." Upon the demand of the crowd Ali gave a demonstration of the Ali Shuffle, saying that although he had not used it in the first fight, Frazier would see it-if he can-in the rematch.
However, before actually showing the Shuffle. Ali gave a dissertation on its nature and use. Explaining that his punch had been timed by Sports Illustrated at four one-hundredths of a second, and that the average reaction time is 25 one-hundredths, "It's humanly impossible for you to get out of the way. You're 21 hundredths of a second too slow." The Shuffle is used as a diversion. According to Ali, it lasts roughly half a second. "For ten one-hundredths... he'll [Frazier] look at it. As soon as the Shuffle stops. I come up with the punch travelling at my four one-hundredths of a second... impossible to get out of the way."
After rejecting two would be opponents. Ali demonstrated the Shuffle on sportscaster Dick Stockton, warning that "the Ali Shuffle will make you suffer."
AT 29, Muhammad Ali is as complete as a man as he is a fighter. Secure and serious in the pursuit of his "purpose in life," his strength, courage and conviction recall to mind Paul Robeson, the hugely talented black singer who parried the assaults that a demi-world of small men thrust at him because of his beliefs. Like Robeson, Ali possesses a majestic grace that allows him to thrive when it is expected he will crumble. Seven years ago when he fulfilled that initial purpose of his life by winning the championship, he said, "I'm free to be who I want to be." He has maintained that freedom; however, one wonders at what cost. When I asked him if he felt he had had to pay an unjust price to maintain his integrity, he said, "I've paid no unjust price to be who I want to be. A cheap price. I haven't paid nothing."
For Ali, the issue does not seem to be debatable. Perhaps he's right, and it's presumptuous to contradict him. He is "the oiliest boxer in history to be treated like a Senator." However, they've yet to put a Senator in jail.
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