Didinger: Muhammad Ali was the champion who changed the world


It wasn’t an easy place to find, Deer Lake. It was a little town tucked away in Schuylkill County, just off Route 61 near Pottsville. In the days before GPS technology, you needed very good directions — and a little luck — to find it.

But Muhammad Ali found it and soon the world followed.

Ali chose Deer Lake as the site for his training camp. He liked running the trails on Sculp Hill Mountain. He liked the rustic setting and the solitude. Deer Lake was where Ali went to prepare for the fights that would define his career as heavyweight champion of the world.

And because Ali was there, the rich and famous also passed through Deer Lake. Elvis Presley dropped in one day. Michael Jackson was there, too. Howard Cosell was a regular visitor. Almost every day there was someone coming up the hill looking for the cluster of cabins that served as Ali’s home base.

Virtually every sportswriter or sportscaster in the world was at Deer Lake at one time or another. I was there, too. I remember there were boulders on the property and Ali had painted the name of a former heavyweight champion on each one. He said every day when he trained he looked at the names and it reminded him of the men who had gone before.

Like most people, I’ve thought a lot about Ali since his death at age 74. I thought about the first time I saw him at Deer Lake. As he walked toward me, I remember thinking, “He’s bigger than I thought.” He looked like an NFL tight end. He was 6-foot-3 and with his broad shoulders and thick chest he looked at least 15 pounds heavier than his listed weight of 215.

What I remember most were his hands. They were enormous. He made a fist and it looked like a cannon ball.

I don’t know why this surprised me. I mean, he was the heavyweight champion of the world. But I didn’t expect him to be quite so imposing. Of course, some of it may have been the mere fact it was Ali, a man whose presence was, even then, larger than life.

In the quiet of the training camp, Ali wasn’t the boisterous showman that people often saw on TV. He wasn’t spouting poetry or pounding his chest. He spoke softly, smiled a lot and spent a great deal of time just gazing off into the distance, enjoying the view.

In those moments, it was hard to imagine Ali as the symbol he became, the man who stood against his own government, the man who changed the popular notion of sports heroes, the man who became as well known for his battles outside the ring as those he fought for the heavyweight title.

As trainer Angelo Dundee once said, “Who knew when this kid walked into the gym that he’d change the world?”

Who knew, indeed?

Michael Mann, a fine director, made a film about Ali. Ali himself picked Philadelphia’s Will Smith to play the part and Smith had the moves and the mannerisms, but the movie fell flat because what Ali did and what he represented was so much larger and more profound.

The only movie that did Ali justice was the documentary “When We Were Kings” and that’s because it was Ali himself. Director Leon Gast chronicled the 1974 Ali-George Foreman bout in Zaire, Africa. The film shows Ali walking through the villages and bonding with the people. The villagers touch his face and hands as if he were the Messiah. To see that film is to see what made Ali a transcendent figure.

He wasn’t a statesman or a deep thinker. He graduated near the bottom of his high school class. But he had a natural understanding of right and wrong and a willingness to identify unfairness and then stand against it. It sounds easy enough, but how many people do it? How many are willing to give up as much as he did, sacrificing three years of his career and untold millions to refuse induction into the Army?

I remember talking to Jim Brown, the great fullback, about his admiration for Ali. Brown was one of the first athletes to stand with Ali when he took on the U.S. government. It frustrated Brown, who became a community activist in Los Angeles, that other prominent African-American athletes, such as Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, refused to get involved. Brown felt they were afraid of losing endorsement money.

“Ali had the courage to stand up,” Brown said. “That’s why he’ll always be remembered.”

Ali was a complicated figure. He was admirable, certainly, with a genuine caring for people in need, but he was also capable of cruelty, such as his taunting of Joe Frazier, calling him “The Gorilla” and labeling him an Uncle Tom. For Frazier, who grew up in poverty as a sharecropper’s son in South Carolina, it was deeply hurtful. He never forgave Ali for it.

For years, people tried to bring the two together, to have a reunion, a healing and while there was the occasional photo op, Frazier never let go of his bitterness, which is sad but understandable. But if that’s part of Ali’s legacy, then there is the good part as well. He amazed, he influenced and he inspired. Most of all, he made us think.

He was The Greatest.

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