Stephen Tignor | Longreads | August 2016 | 22 minutes (5,613 words)
The fifth edition of the ESPY Awards, held in 1997 at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was a celebration of the African-American athlete. Michael Johnson won Best Male Athlete, Tiger Woods and Desmond Howard received honors, black celebrities were on hand to pay tribute to Jackie Robinson, and Ray Charles performed.
But the loudest ovation was reserved for Muhammad Ali. The former heavyweight champion was presented with the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, which for more than two decades has been given to a recipient who “reflect[s] the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril, and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”
It was the evening’s melancholy high point. The spirits of Ashe and Ali were alive in the room. Yet the voices of these two heroes of the 1960s and ’70s could no longer be heard. The tennis player had died four years earlier, at age 49, of complications from AIDS. The boxer was only 55, but Parkinson’s disease had muted this most verbal of athletes. The man who introduced Ali at the ESPYs, Sidney Poitier, spoke for many of his generation when he said, “The first thing I remember is his voice.” But on this night, Ali could muster just two words for the audience: “Thank you.”
It would be hard to imagine two people, let alone two sportsmen of the same era, whose personalities diverged as much as theirs did. Ashe was cautious and cerebral, Ali brash and outrageous. Ashe excelled in a genteel sport, Ali in a brutal one. Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War; Ashe was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Ali joined the separatist Nation of Islam and befriended Malcolm X; Ashe dedicated his life to the cause of Martin Luther King and integration. If we think of Ali by his given name, Cassius Clay, even their surnames—Clay and Ashe—represent opposing states of matter.
Yet it was fitting that they should be honored together on a night of African-American celebration. During the same tumultuous period, they had proved what a powerful impact engaged athletes can have on the world. Ashe had once said of Ali, “He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of a black athlete’s responsibility to get involved.” Ashe was one of those who had followed Ali’s lead.
Ali and Ashe were born within a year of each other, in 1942 and 1943, respectively, in large cities in athe segregated South. Ali grew up in Louisville, Ashe in Richmond. Their lives would run on parallel tracks for five decades, as each rose to the top of his sport and, at the same time, transcended it. They became spokesmen for African-Americans during the revolutionary ’60s, took their messages to Africa in the ’70s, and recorded their final triumphs in 1975. Through the ’80s, each man would show courage in the face of tragically early physical deterioration.
Ali and Ashe brought different messages to a country, and a black community, that had been upended by civil rights. Ali’s experience as an African-American in the South led him to believe that the U.S. would never live up to its professed ideals of equality when it came to blacks; Ashe’s experience led him to try to prove that the nation could. Their lives can be read as a conversation about what it means to be an African-American and, by extension, what it means to be American.
* * *
In 1955, Ali—then known as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.—turned 13 in Louisville and Ashe turned 12 in Richmond. That summer, both boys were deeply affected by the story of another African-American their age, from Chicago. While visiting relatives in Mississippi, it is believed 14-year-old Emmett Till had made the fatal mistake of calling a white cashier at a grocery store “baby.” Four days later, the woman’s husband and half brother dragged Till out of his great-uncle’s house, beat him, gouged out his eye, shot him in the head, and dumped his body in the Tallahatchie River.
When Till’s mother chose to have an open casket at his funeral, Jet magazine published photos of his virtually unrecognizable corpse. The murderers’ acquittal by an all-white jury, in 67 minutes, was taken by African-American families as a warning. When Cassius Clay Sr., a sign painter, saw the photos of Till, he showed them to his two sons. “This is what they do to us!” he told them.
“[I] felt a deep kinship to him,” Ali would say of Till. “My father talked about it at night and dramatized the crime. I couldn’t get Emmett out of my mind.”
“The horror that Cassius experienced looking at the pictures of Till’s brutalized face in the pages of the black press,” wrote Ali biographer David Remnick in the New Yorker, “helped convince him of the limits of his possibilities as a black kid in the South.”
At the same time that Till’s death was confirming Cassius Clay Sr.’s sense of injustice in Louisville, it was also confirming the long-held fears of Arthur Ashe Sr. in Richmond. Ashe, a single father whose wife, Mattie, had died five years earlier, was a stern, responsible maintenance man who watched over his two sons, Arthur Jr. and Johnnie, closely. Now his efforts were given a new sense of urgency.
“My father tried hard to keep us out of harm’s way, and the possibility of harm was real,” Ashe would later say. “We all knew what had happened to Emmett Till, whose death in 1955 cast a shadow over my youth and that of virtually all black kids in Richmond.”
Ashe Sr. believed that trouble lurked in all directions for young African-Americans in Richmond, and did his best to help his elder son navigate the all-powerful white world that surrounded him. Each day, Arthur Jr. was expected to return home 10 minutes after the final bell at school rang, and he was never to argue with whites or blame them for his problems. Young Arthur, naturally deferential, did as he was told.
Clay Sr. remained unbowed. “There was nothing modest about Cassius, Sr.,” wrote Ali’s friend Howard Bingham in his book Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America (written with Max Wallace). “I am the greatest!” the father would announce to anyone within earshot—including, presumably, his oldest son. The young Cassius would appropriate his father’s catchphrase; more important, the father’s racial grievances inspired a self-reliant ambition in the son. After Till’s death, Cassius Jr. knew that the only way he was going to beat the system was by doing it himself.
Ashe, a straight-A student, became famous for his thoughtful reserve and his ability to move easily between white and black worlds. But he would also be accused of not being militant enough in the African-American cause. Billie Jean King, tennis’s resident revolutionary, once claimed that “a lot of blacks have told me that in many ways they can relate to me better than they can to Arthur.”
The self-effacing patience and prudence Ashe learned in Richmond were just as much a product of the black experience in the South as the self-dramatizing rebelliousness that Ali learned from his own father in Louisville.
* * *
By the time Ali and Ashe entered their teens, each had found a refuge from their highly circumscribed surroundings. The boxing ring and the tennis court became places where they could remake their worlds the way they wanted.
Ali claimed that he started fighting as a way “to make it in this country,” but he took his first boxing lesson at age 12 for a more practical reason: His bike had been stolen. “The usually easygoing youngster erupted in fury,” Bingham and Wallace wrote, “and started to yell for a policeman.” It turned out there was one in the basement of a nearby building. Clay ran there in tears and found Joe Martin, an off-duty Louisville cop who trained young boxers.
Clay was hooked from day one. At first Martin thought the skinny kid’s talents were “just ordinary,” but he was easily the hardest worker he had ever trained. “It was almost impossible to discourage him,” Martin told Thomas Hauser, author of Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Soon after meeting Martin, Clay beat a fellow novice fighter and promptly shouted, “I’m gonna be the greatest in the world!”
By 1960, the 18-year-old Clay was accomplished enough to win a gold medal at the Olympics in Rome. The ring wasn’t a place of violence for Clay; it was a stage where he could express the showmanship and artistry that he had inherited from his father. Clay won with speed rather than power.
Ashe discovered tennis at age 7, when his father took a job as a policeman at one of Richmond’s segregated recreational facilities, Brookfield Park. The younger Ashe may not have seemed a likely future tennis champion; in the 1950s, the sport was still the province of exclusive all-white clubs. But with daily access to the courts at Brookfield, he quickly caught the eye of local teaching pro Ron Charity. Like Cassius Clay, Ashe’s playing style belied his personality. Cautious off court, he was a slashing, risk-taking attacker on it.
By the time he was 10, Ashe’s reputation had spread as far as Lynchburg, Va., and the home of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson. In between his medical rounds, Johnson had pioneered the idea of the junior tennis academy on a court in his backyard. His goal was to develop the Jackie Robinson of tennis, a player good enough to break the sport’s color barrier and beat whites at their own game. In 1950, he succeeded when his star student, Althea Gibson, became the first African-American to compete in the U.S. Nationals (now the U.S. Open).
As the ’50s continued, Johnson found a new goal: mentoring a black player who could win the National Interscholastic Championships, an annual all-white tournament held at the University of Virginia. It was one thing to integrate an international event in New York, another to do it in the South. Johnson was adamant; he didn’t just want a black player to enter the Interscholastics, he wanted one to win it.
“What made me maddest,” Johnson told Time magazine two years before his death in 1971, “was this idea that colored athletes were only good as sprinters or strong boys, who couldn’t learn…finesse.”
To break tennis’ color barrier, Johnson believed he needed not just a standout athlete, but one who also possessed manners that were beyond reproach. “Never question a line call, never confront anyone on a court,” is how one student of Johnson’s described his philosophy. “If one of us was to challenge a player, they [officials at white tournaments] might say, ‘See, this is why we don’t let them in.’”
Ashe, it was soon apparent, was the perfect vessel for Johnson’s ideas about decorum, as well as his regimented training program. “I always did exactly what Dr. Johnson told me to do,” Ashe said. “Usually, his strategy was right.”
In 1961, eight years after joining Johnson’s program, Ashe fulfilled the older man’s dream by winning the Interscholastics. Ashe would not only be the first black winner of the tournament, he would also be its last winner in the South. That same year, after hosting the tournament for 14 years, the University of Virginia asked to have it moved elsewhere. The college cited the financial burden, but, as Ashe biographer Eric Allen Hall has pointed pointed out, a Sports Illustrated editorial at the time asserted that people in the area were “unhappy at the university’s role as a tournament host since Negroes began to appear regularly.” In 1962, the event left Charlottesville for Williamstown, Mass. Ashe would move on to bigger stages and bigger victories as well, but this one was as significant as any.
* * *
Clay and Ashe entered the 1960s as two of the most promising young African-American athletes. What each of them would mean to this revolutionary era was summed up in a pair of magazine covers that appeared in 1968, the year when that decade reached its unruly nadir.
In April, Esquire portrayed the boxer—now with a new name—as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows, above the headline “The Passion of Muhammad Ali.” Esquire was the bible of the counterculture, and Ali one of its icons. Three months later, Ashe appeared on the cover of Life. He was photographed playing tennis, in all-white clothes, under the headline “The Icy Elegance of Arthur Ashe.” While Esquire was the hip chronicler of ‘60s youth, Life was the graying photo album of the establishment. Ashe was celebrated in its pages for his calm under pressure, and held up as an antiradical black athlete—an anti-Ali.
How had Ali gone from smiling gold medalist in 1960 to being shot through with metaphorical arrows eight years later?
The transition began in 1964 when, as a 7–1 underdog, Clay upset heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami. Liston was a glowering ex-con, while the other heavyweight contender of that era, Floyd Patterson, was his opposite: polite, nonthreatening, a favorite of liberals. Ali didn’t fit either mold. He was youthful, charismatic, funny, and he didn’t defer to anyone. It was only a matter of time before he would test the limits of white America’s tolerance for a confident black athlete.
That tolerance began to crack soon after the Liston fight, when Clay revealed that he had joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, and that the group’s leader had chosen a new name for him, Muhammad Ali. Ali never shared Muhammad’s belief that whites were “blue-eyed devils,” but he respected the fact that he “made people feel it was good to be black.” Many viewed the Nation as a criminal organization, and longtime boxing writers viewed Clay’s—they refused to call him Ali—association with it as an act of treason.
Ali’s revelation in ’64 that he was a Muslim made him unpopular with many Americans; his announcement three years later that he wouldn’t fight for his country turned him into public enemy No. 1. The day after Ali announced his conversion, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who feared the destabilizing influence of the Black Muslims, and suspected that Ali had purposely failed the test, instructed his agents to look into the young troublemaker’s draft status.
It turned out that, six weeks earlier, Ali had failed an Army intelligence test. “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest,” Ali joked. Unable to force Ali to pass its aptitude tests, the Pentagon decided to lower its standards. Ali had scored between the 16th and 18th percentile; in November 1965, the passing grade was conveniently dropped from the 30th to the 15th, and Ali was made eligible for the draft.
According to reporter Robert Lipsyte, who was with Ali in Miami when he got the news, “Somebody asked, ‘What do you think about the Vietcong?’ By this time, [Ali] was angry, tired, pissed off, and he gave his quote, which is, ‘I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong.’”
“With that one sentence about the Vietcong,” columnist Jerry Izenberg told Bingham and Wallace, “Ali became the patron saint of the anti-war movement. Before that, none of the protesters could really articulate why they were against the war. He gave them the reason.”
In April 1967, Ali, claiming that his role as a minister of Islam should make him exempt, refused to step forward to be drafted. For that he was stripped of his heavyweight title, banned from boxing for three years, and sentenced to five years in prison; it took a jury about 20 minutes to find him guilty. Yet Ali’s antiwar commitment only deepened.
From 1967 to ’70, as his case made its circuitous way through the courts, Ali traveled the country giving antiwar speeches. Through his fiery words, he helped change mainstream America’s attitude toward the war, and toward himself. Nowhere was Ali’s impact on the country more obvious than in the verdict that the Supreme Court handed down in 1971. Four years earlier, Ali had been quickly and decisively found guilty of draft evasion; now the country’s highest court unanimously upheld his status as a conscientious objector.
* * *
While Ali was telling the world that he didn’t have anything against those Vietcong in early 1966, Arthur Ashe was flying to Fort Lewis, Wash., to begin six weeks of basic training with the Army.
Ali saw segregation as fundamental to the United States. Ashe saw it as a regional derangement to be cured, a way of life that was ultimately antithetical to the nation’s character. Ashe’s attitude can be summed up in his feelings about Davis Cup, tennis’s international team event. Nothing would give him more satisfaction than becoming the first black man to be chosen for the U.S. team.
“Segregation and racism had made me loathe aspects of the white South, but had scarcely left me less of a patriot,” Ashe wrote. “In fact, to me and my family, winning a place on our national team would mark my ultimate triumph over all those people who had opposed my career in the South in the name of segregation.”
“Despite segregation, I loved the United States. It thrilled me beyond measure to hear the umpire announce not my name but that of my country: ‘Game, United States,’ ‘Set, United States,’ ‘Game, Set, and Match, United States.’”
Ashe began the ’60s by joining the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at UCLA. Ashe’s uncles had fought in the Marines and the Navy, and his younger brother, Johnnie, would join the Marines and fight in Vietnam. In college, Ashe was a study in moderation when it came to political and racial issues. He thought deeply about the problems, but took no part in the demonstrations after the Watts riots in L.A. in 1965, and didn’t travel back to the South for the protests against segregation there.
“There were times,” Ashe said, “when I felt a burning sense of shame that I was not with blacks—and whites—standing up to the fire hoses and police dogs.”
When Ashe listened to the speeches of African-American activists at UCLA, he heard echoes of the white segregationists he had happily left behind in the South. Unlike Ali, Ashe believed that civil rights had made a difference, and that racial progress in the U.S. was possible.
“I never went along with the pronouncements of Elijah Muhammad,” Ashe told Hauser, “that the white man was the devil and that blacks should be striving for separate development—a sort of American apartheid. That never made sense to me.”
For the war effort, Ashe played exhibitions, met with troops, and worked as a tennis coach at West Point. He got to hit balls rather than dodge bullets, while the Army got to show off an African-American officer and star athlete in its ranks. It was the type of arrangement that Ali, who was offered the chance to put on boxing exhibitions for the Army instead of fighting, had risked jail time to reject.
By 1968, Ashe could no longer resist the pull of politics or the example of Ali. This was the year of the Revolt of the Black Athlete, illustrated most vividly by U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised gloved fists on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics. At a meeting of black athletes that year, Jesse Jackson challenged Ashe to use his fame to greater effect. “Jesse, I’m just not arrogant, and I ain’t never going to be arrogant,” Ashe said. “I’m just going to do it my way.”
In March 1968, Ashe accepted an invitation to speak at the Church of the Redeemer in Washington, D.C., from the same pulpit where Stokely Carmichael, the man who coined the term “black power” two years earlier, had recently given an impassioned oration. Ashe’s speech was modest by comparison. He emphasized personal responsibility—“poverty is half laziness,” he asserted—and echoed the words of King. According to Ashe, African-Americans needed militants like Carmichael to lead, but they also needed moderates like himself to back them up. The mostly black congregation gave him a standing ovation.
Ashe now knew that his words mattered, and his self-assurance grew accordingly. Six months later, he would become the first black man to win the U.S. Open. As he stood on the trophy stand at Forest Hills with his arm around his father, Ashe’s win was hailed as a victory for race relations in America.
But it hadn’t come without controversy. In the quarterfinals, Ashe had faced his friend, Cliff Drysdale of South Africa. There was talk that Ashe, a child of segregation, should withdraw to protest apartheid; earlier that year, he had told a reporter that he would consider such a boycott. But Ashe, who knew that Drysdale was against segregation, decided to play.
When he won the match, Ashe was saluted by New York sportswriter Arthur Daley. “He proved his own superiority,” Daley wrote. “If he had withdrawn in protest, he would have proved nothing.” To Daley, “direct confrontation” was the best way for this black athlete to deal with the situation in South Africa. Over the next five years, Ashe would put that theory to the test.
* * *
When Ashe heard a maid at a Johannesburg mansion address him with those words, he stopped in his tracks: “For the love of God,” he thought.
It was November 1973, and Ashe was fulfilling a long-held but still controversial dream: becoming the first black man to play in the South African Open.
In 1970, Ashe had applied for a visa into the country. Instead, he had been banned by the South African government. Saying, as he had, that “I just want to take an H-bomb and drop it right on Johannesburg” probably hadn’t helped his cause.
Ashe’s 1969 ban only made him more determined to isolate South Africa from the international community. The following year, he succeeded in having the nation suspended from the Davis Cup, and he began to travel in other parts of Africa. In 1971, on a visit to Cameroon, Ashe singled out a talented 11-year-old named Yannick Noah for further attention. Seven years later, they would play doubles together at Wimbledon.
Finally, in 1973, talks began between Ashe, the South African government, and the promoters of the South African Open about bringing him to Johannesburg. Many people, believing that the regime would only use Ashe to make itself look humane and reasonable, tried to persuade him not to make the trip. But Ashe thought that the sight of a free black man competing with whites, and beating them, would offer hope.
Ashe spent the week of the South African Open in a state of wonder, and sometimes fear, at the subtly sinister quality of apartheid. He visited the slums of Soweto, met with high-ranking officials, and debated his trip with activists. One day Ashe was followed by a young boy as he walked through the city; when he asked him what he was doing, the boy said that he had never seen a free black man before. And at the home where he stayed in Johannesburg, Ashe had the surreal experience of being addressed as “master” by the domestic help.
“See, here is little Artie Ashe,” he joked in his journal, “the skinny black kid from the capital of the old Confederacy, all set up in a mansion carrying on jes’ like the white folks, and gettin’ hisself called Master.”
Cliff Drysdale agreed with Ashe’s stance and welcomed his trip; another South African player, Bob Hewitt, said he thought Ashe should mind his own business because the blacks of South Africa were “happy.” Ashe would play and beat Drysdale and Hewitt on his way to the tournament’s final; both times the American was the crowd favorite. The black fans were so enthusiastic that Ashe had to remind them not to cheer for his opponents’ errors. He also demanded that the normally segregated seating at the tournament be integrated while he played, but that was beyond his star power. Whites watched from up close, blacks from afar.
Yet four decades later, many people, including Drysdale, now view the trip as a starting point in the eventual demise of apartheid. Ashe had used sports to crack open a door; over the next two decades, he would use his powers as an anti-apartheid activist—he was arrested during a protest in Washington, D.C., in 1985—to help push that door wide open.
* * *
Eleven months after Ashe departed Johannesburg, Muhammad Ali began his own journey to Africa. The boxer’s excursion, not surprisingly, wasn’t quite as sober-minded as the tennis player’s. Ali went to Zaire to fight George Foreman, the fear-inspiring Texas slugger, in what became known as the Rumble in the Jungle.
“From the Slave Ship to the Championship” was how the bout was originally billed, until the Zaireans took (understandable) offense. But nobody could dampen Ali’s spirits. He had been back in the ring for three years, and was still looking to reclaim his belt; now he had a chance to take it back from Foreman. Ali spent two months in Africa regaling the press with tales of how “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.”
Ali also injected political drama into the proceedings. He cast Foreman as a symbol of colonialism and U.S. hegemony to the Zaireans, and cast himself as the native African. “He’s in my country to start with!” Ali bellowed when asked about Foreman.
It worked; the Zaireans rallied around Ali. The global respect he had earned by refusing to fight in Vietnam preceded him even here. Ali had no trouble whipping 60,000 people into a deafening chant of “Ali, bomaye!”— “Ali, kill him!”
In truth, while Ali and Ashe had been successful as activists, by 1974 it had been some time since either had won anything significant as athletes. Ali had been stripped of his belt seven years earlier, and had yet to win it back. Ashe hadn’t won a major title since the U.S. Open in 1968. A new generation of pros, led by Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg, had leaped in while he wasn’t looking.
But in 1974 and ’75 Ali and Ashe were rewarded for their good works with three career-capping triumphs. Each man would, in the words of Ali, rope a dope.
Ali invented the tactic in the second round of his fight with Foreman. After spending two months telling the world that he was going to dance Foreman to death, Ali retreated to the ropes and made himself an easy target for his opponent’s roundhouse blows. By the sixth round, Foreman had done what Ali thought he would do: punched himself out.
Ali asked, “That’s all you got, George?” and then, when the eighth round started, told him, “Now it’s my turn.” In the closing seconds of that round, Ali climbed off the ropes, popped Foreman with a right hand to the face, and sent the giant tumbling. Ali was champion again.
* * *
In the 1975 Wimbledon final, Ashe would use his own version of the rope-a-dope to beat tennis’ version of George Foreman, Jimmy Connors.
As with Foreman, it was widely believed that the 22-year-old Connors was unbeatable. The Brash Basher from Belleville had won the tournament the previous year and was No. 1 in the world. In 1974 he had gone 99–4, and there was talk in the locker room about how he would “go on winning everything for years.”
But there was one person in that room at Wimbledon who had to believe he could beat Connors. After winning his semifinal in five sets, Ashe walked into the player lounge and watched Connors shred their countryman Roscoe Tanner. Tanner was the game’s hardest server, but every ball he hit came back even harder from Connors. Now Ashe knew that his usual hammer-and-tongs aggressiveness wasn’t going to work. Could he do something different, just once?
A year before, Ali’s friends had been frightened to see him walk into a ring with Foreman; now Ashe’s friends felt the same way. Bud Collins said he was “scared to death that Arthur was going to be terribly embarrassed” by Connors. Ashe would answer their fears the same way that Ali had.
Before the final, Ashe huddled with his agent, Donald Dell, and fellow player Dennis Ralston, and came up with a plan based on the rope-a-dope. Instead of feeding Connors, a born counterpuncher, the pace he craved, Ashe would slice and dice. Instead of cracking the flat serve he loved, and which Connors loved to crack back, Ashe would bend it away from him.
But not all of Ashe’s tactics were ripped from the Ali playbook. Where he cast Foreman as the American in their fight, Ashe claimed that status for himself at Wimbledon. He walked onto Centre Court wearing his red-and-blue Davis Cup team jacket, with “USA” emblazoned across the back. It was a not-so-subtle message to Connors, a self-styled maverick who had refused to play for his country that year.
Ashe’s strategy worked perfectly. He rolled the ball gently, swung Connors from side to side, and gave him no punches to counter. Ashe won the first two sets 6–1, 6–1. In the end, like Ali, he let rip two knockout backhands to break serve in the fourth set. When tennis historians speak of strategic masterpieces, this is the match they point to first.
After his final winner, Ashe turned to his player box and raised his fist, briefly, in celebration. He had become the first black man to win Wimbledon, and many believed he was making a black-power salute. Ashe said it was merely a gesture of triumph toward his friend Dell. But he also said he was happy, later, to hear that “Among blacks, I’ve had quite a few say [the win] was up there with Joe Louis in his prime and Jackie Robinson breaking in with the Dodgers in 1947.”
Ashe, hewing as always to the middle path, began the afternoon wearing his USA Davis Cup jacket, and finished it by holding up a clenched fist.
* * *
Ashe and Ali were born at the same time, became politically aware at the same time, and reached the summits of their sports at the same time. They would also suffer physical decline at the same time.
In 1975, Ali beat Joe Frazier in 14 rounds in the Thrilla in Manila. The fight took place in an estimated 120-degree heat, and both men felt like they had been lucky to live through it. “We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me,” Ali said, “and we came back as old men.
Ali, as usual, was prescient. Three years later, he lost his belt to an unknown named Leon Spinks. In 1980, at age 38, he was knocked out by Larry Holmes. By then, Ali had begun to show the symptoms—slurred speech, slowed reactions—that would be diagnosed as Parkinson’s disease in 1984.
Four years after winning Wimbledon, in July 1979, Ashe suffered a heart attack while teaching a tennis clinic in New York. After two rounds of heart surgery, it was discovered in 1988 that he had contracted HIV from a blood transfusion. He died of pneumonia, a complication of AIDS, on February 6, 1993.
Ashe and Ali ended their lives as they had lived them, with courage and a flair for the dramatic. In 1992, Ashe stood bravely before TV cameras to confirm that the stories circulating that he had AIDS were true. Four years later in Atlanta, Ali delighted the world when he appeared, seemingly from nowhere, to light the Olympic torch.
On June 3, 2016, Ali died of Parkinson’s disease at age 74, but not before he could register one last protest, against the wave of anti-Islamic feeling that was being stirred up in the U.S. “Islam is a religion of peace,” Ali said after the 9/11 attacks. In many ways, it had been his message all along.
Ashe and Ali often expressed a desire to meet each other, but it happened just once during their athletic careers. After his trip to South Africa in 1973, the tennis player made a pilgrimage to the boxer’s training camp in rural Pennsylvania. Here was the man who had helped Ashe gain the courage to be more than an athlete, to live for more than himself.
“Ali spoke in his usual folksy way, with the bad grammar and the colorful idioms,” Ashe said—he had his standards, even with the immortals. “But there certainly is no doubt in my mind that a very natively clever man lurks behind this façade. We had a most forthright and intelligent conversation.”
Their long-distance dialogue—about what athletes owe to the world, and what Americans owe to their country—is over now. But Ali’s passion and fearlessness have been inherited by a new generation of African-American activists and athletes, while Ashe’s cerebral moderation can be seen in the governing style of Barack Obama.
That conversation also lives on in their words, which are quoted ceaselessly on the internet by people too young to have seen them in their primes. Here the two legends will talk to each other, and to future generations, forever:
“I know where I’m going, and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be.” — Muhammad Ali
“From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.” — Arthur Ashe
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Stephen Tignor is a senior writer at Tennis Magazine and Tennis.com, and author of High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Last Days of Tennis’ Golden Age.
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