Green: Muhammad Ali changed American culture

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
Muhammad Ali toys with the finely combed hair of television sports commentators Howard Cosell before the start of the Olympic boxing trials, Aug. 7, 1972, in West Point, NY.

He was in a dark corner in the Fifth Street Gym in Miami in a rubber shirt, pounding the light bag.

Rat-a-tat-tat!

The quick hands always worked for Muhammad Ali, even when the pudginess of aging set in.

"Time," yelled Angelo Dundee, the boxing trainer nonpareil.

Ali stopped the punching of the bag. He used his boxing gloves to lift the rubber shirt.

The sweat of the workout cascaded to the gymnasium floor.

"I am the greatest alllll time -- still," said Ali as he greeted the touring reporter.

"I'm getting old."

And he vowed to win the heavyweight championship once again, for a fourth time, when he would fight Larry Holmes in 1980.

We scoffed at the beginning at his braggart's rhymes; we mocked his religious beliefs; we castigated him for his refusal accept induction into the Army during the Vietnam War.

And we -- that is most of us in this journalism profession -- turned around and gifted him with respect and admiration.

He was a man for the times -- the turbulent 1960s when our nation was shredded by a war in Asia. And he was a man for the times in the more peaceful 1970s as he aged and so did we.

The greatest of all time?

The greatest heavyweight champion?

Not really.

Joe Louis would have beaten Ali.

Joe Frazier did once in their classic three-bout series. And Holmes would beat the bloated Ali in Las Vegas.

But there is more to greatness than pure skill in the boxing ring -- and more to greatness than impure poetry and the braggart's artistry with words.

Greatness is connected to impact -- and no other athlete in the 20th century had more impact on society.

Not even Jackie Robinson?

Robinson changed Major League Baseball, and thus, sports.

Ali changed American culture.

I believe he made it better.

We could sort of thumb our noses at the government, if we wanted. Ali did with dignified defiance and won in the courts. He could be sassy and funny and make stodgy old goats giggle at themselves. He could make us react and think.

Yes, Ali the athlete, Ali the man too, he was the greatest.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.