I have not thought much about Muhammad  Ali in several years.

During my flirtation with the left in the 1970’s, our generation idolized a man who went from heavy weight champion to chump, to some, with his transformation in becoming a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War.  His courage and bravery gave strength, especially to younger people, who opposed what was happening in Southeast Asia.

Though not being much of a boxing fan, I never missed a fight of his. Since being able to afford watching one of these epic matches against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman at Movie Theater venues was out the question, we had to settle for listening to accounts on the radio until the fights could be seen for free on commercial television.

March 8, 1971 was one of those dates. On an unusually warm spring evening in Isla Vista near the campus of UCSB, my roommate, Kevin, and I turned to the radio to listen for what would become an historic battle between Ali and his tormentor Joe Frazier.  Both fighters were undefeated. Frazier 26-0 held the crown that Ali 31-0 had stripped away from him when he declined to be conscripted into the Army.

Muhammad Ali was the counterculture’s hero.  While we grew our hair long, listened intently to Jimmy Hendrix, constantly smoked weed, spoke about “The people,” and demonstrated against the war, our generation stopped short of ever putting it on the line as he did.  Even though we denounced the so-called “industrial military complex”, such views were dwarfed by Ali who changed his legal name from Cassius Clay following converting to Islam. While we embraced the so called Counterfeit Counterculture, he in effect put his money where his mouth was.

After all these years, I don’t remember much about the fight except it was really tense. Taking place at Madison Square Garden in New York, it started a little after 6pm West Coast time. During the proceedings the commentators remarked that Ali, who had not fought much during the almost four years while he spent challenging the draft in the courts, was understandably a bit rusty.  This was a nice way of them saying Ali was losing.

It was not close.  Two of the judges had it 9-6 Frazier while the third one was even more lopsided at 11-4. Even more important no one at ringside ever considered the physical beating and punishment the fighters took during the proceedings.  In those days championship fights went 15 rounds rather than the 12 rounds of today. More latitude then was given by doctors allowing fighters to continue after they had been beaten to a pulp.

When the match ended, Kevin and I got on our bikes and journeyed over to campus to attend some sort of a political science or sociology seminar. When we entered the room where about 40 students were gathering, the professor looked over the two dejected parties who had arrived late saying two words, “Ali lost”.  Several of the people in attendance did not even know that a prize fight had actually taken place. They were caught up in their studies, social life, and all the things kids of their age concerned themselves with.

The professor was not one of these people.  He spent the rest of his lecture time talking about the significance Muhammad Ali had on American culture and how this iconic figure from Louisville, Kentucky had changed society forever.

The class soon became interested to know what had transpired at Madison Square Garden that evening. Kevin and I, who were concerned about being dinged for showing up late to the seminar, were suddenly the center of attention.  Naturally, we took advantage of the moment to boost our stature in the class.

There is little doubt that Ali and Frazier provided some of the greatest athletic drama ever witnessed. Unfortunately, these battles led to ailments that would cripple their quality of life in subsequent years. Despite this sad legacy, we should be grateful, especially to Muhammad Ali, for his contributions to American culture and civil rights in the 20th Century.

Even though “the greatest,” as Ali was known, performed charitable deeds, lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and was America’s Ambassador of good will, he was a shell of his former self.  Being loved and idolized around the world was all his frail body could muster.

Beyond athletics, Muhammad Ali was an individual who accomplished so much in and out of the ring. While other fighters may have come after him that so-called experts believed matched his athletic prowess, no one from any sport has ever accomplished what Ali was able to achieve in life.

For this, I will always be grateful to the Champ who was a hero to me in so many ways. In the big picture what transpired on March 8, 1971 simply does not matter.