Walter Mosley, author of many works of fiction in a variety of genres — my favorites are the Easy Rawlins novels set in post WW II L.A. — posts a moving and heartfelt eulogy for Muhammad Ali for the NY Times. It starts with the impact on Mosley of Ali's refusal to be drafted for the War in Vietnam. Mosley remembers saying to a friend he would not serve in Vietnam because he felt "no hatred toward or fear of the Vietnamese people.” When he thought for a second about where those words came from, he realized they had come from Muhammad Ali, who had said much the same when refusing to be drafted.
Perhaps Ali could have turned service in Vietnam into a sort of performance or spectacle. He might have entertained the troops without actually ever seeing battle. He wouldn't have been the first celebrity/celebrity athlete to do a tour of duty that way. But he didn't take an easy way out. His made his refusal to be drafted into a powerful statement of principle that inspired Mosley and confirmed many of us in the anti-war movement.
Ali paid a huge price that has not been properly adjudged. Banned from boxing at age 25 and not licensed to box again until he was 29, he was barred from his sport at the height of his excellence. When he was admitted back into the ring, he wasn't the same fighter. The older Ali had lost the speed that had made him so distinctive, giving him the ability to dodge and slip punches, to hit while not getting hit. Now he would hit and hit back harder, take punishment and punish back, nothing elegant, nothing like sweet science about it.
I remember seeing one of his bouts with Joe Frazier and thinking I was done with boxing, never wanted to expose myself to it again. This was just two powerful men punishing each other to the utmost until one of them, Frazier, simply could not take any more. It wasn't a knockout; it was hell doth have limits, I’m done.
Frazier would say about that fight that he hit with punches that would have brought down a barn. Ali famously remarked that fighting Frazier that time was the hardest thing he would ever have to do next to dying. Yet Ali kept fighting, getting hit and hitting back.
Why did he get Parkinson's? Isn't the answer obvious? It's because he really didn't escape Vietnam; he lost his war against the war in Vietnam. If he had not been deprived of his best years, he would never have suffered the damage incurred he did to prove he was still the best man.