Ali Through the Eyes of My Father
By: Brandon Bernica
Never is it any different. Every time my dad and I watch dusty old tapes of Muhammed Ali’s greatest fights together, he’s always at a loss for words. With each graceful combination Ali throws, my dad can barely muster a “look at that” or a short-lived “whoooaaaa!”. One glance in his direction and you’ll find him as engaged as if he was ringside. After certain fights, he chokes back tears, gripped by the talent, flare, and heart that encapsulated “The Greatest”.
If you know my father, you know that he’s never star-struck. He’s swapped stories with Joe Torre, chatted hoops with Carmelo Anthony, and attended fundraisers with Pete Carroll. Whether you’re a global superstar or the woman working multiple jobs to support her family, my dad meets you with the same warm handshake. But with Ali, he cracks. Admiration radiates from his being every time he reminisces about the man Muhammed was.
I always wondered at what kind of person this fighter must be to leave such an impression upon my father. We all are familiar with the ungodly footwork, the blazing hand speed, and the signature moments inside the ring. We recite his famous quotes like scripture. Everyone grasps his legacy, but I wanted to know why Ali touched my father so personally. After all, there remain many athletes with that talent and charisma mixture – albeit not at the level of Ali. Why this boxer?
My father spent much of his childhood in South Africa during the height of Apartheid. South Africa was divided between the native African population and the collection of white settlers that moved into the region known as Afrikaners. Being a white kid in this unsettling environment must have been a huge challenge for my father. Remnants of that racial unrest are chilling. My dad tells me stories of African boys being bullied at bus stops for the color of their skin. A small silver bell hangs above my parents’ mantle, a bell my dad found in South Africa that was used to call black servants of Afrikaner households. It’s a stark reminder of that country’s prejudicial past.
When Ali came to Africa in the ‘70’s to fight George Foreman, he was already an established celebrity. My father and grandfather would even drive hours to search for one bar that screened Ali’s fights on television. It was clear: a continent oppressed by social injustice for decades found a countercultural figurehead. Miles and seas away, Muhammed Ali loudly attacked the segregated institutions of America that mirrored those dominating South Africa. Chants of “Ali Bomaye” – “Ali, kill him” became the rallying cry for the downtrodden worldwide, centered around one boisterous young man unafraid to speak his mind.
Watching that Ali-Foreman fight, it’s hard for me not to draw parallels with that era’s social current. Foreman had his moments working Ali’s body like a brand new heavy bag, as Ali countered on the ropes. Round by round, however, the undefeated Foreman looked more and more weary. Ali grabbed the opportunity, knocked Foreman out, and raised his hands to the jubilation of a massive Zaire crowd. One could only imagine the hope that each Ali combination brought to Africa. He just took down “the man” in spite of the doubts and fears he faced before the fight, some even coming from family members. It was courage that prevailed in that ring, and it would be courage that would draw the continent out of its discriminatory practices.
My father had every reason to hate Ali. Growing up white in a racially-charged society, rooting for someone that defied white privilege was likely an outsider opinion in my dad’s African community. Perhaps some might have even considered him a traitor for cheering on a black man. When Ali sacrificed 3 years of his prime to dodge the army draft, my dad must have been conflicted once more. My grandfather served in the Marines, sacrificing two university degrees to serve his compulsory mandate. Having a war veteran as your own father could understandably sway you from respecting Ali’s perspective. Yet regardless of whether or not my dad agreed with his stance (I’ve never asked), I know he respected his bravery in taking a stand for something he believed in.
When I look deeper into whom “The Greatest” really was, he was a trailblazer. He shattered the fickle boundaries of culture instead of hiding behind the excuse of fame. What other confidence-overdosed fighter would spend his downtime showing children magic tricks? How daring must it have been for a man to stand up for religious freedom in the public eye, knowing the possible outcry from being so open on the topic?
The mystique of Ali really was that he held no mystique. He unified so many people because he embodied a plethora of their characteristics. Working-class citizens appreciated his will and work ethic. Elitists respected his hustle. Boxing purists praised his athleticism and God-given abilities. Everyone connected with his range of emotions – confidence, anger, joy – though it always felt like he personified these feelings with added gusto.
Whether he realizes it or not, the sources of my father’s passion for Ali reside in the commonalities between the two men. My dad was the one boy that would stand up for those scorned students at the South African bus stops. He’s playful and entertaining. He stands boldly in his beliefs, but he also listens and cares for the people he encounters. Every cop-out was presented to him to despise Ali, and yet he only drew closer to him. Reflecting on the man my father is gives me insight into who Ali truly was, and vice versa. Neither was (is) perfect; both are nonetheless inspiring.
I wish my father would have met the prime Muhammed Ali as a child. They would have laughed, argued, and maybe even tried a few punches out on each other. I’m sure many around the world share the same sentiment, and I know
Ali would have met each and every one of them if it was possible. But as this historic icon passes from this life, I know my father is still content. Coming from the world they shared at one small point in time, they understand one thing: the legacy left behind is greater than the tragedy in this moment.