Entertainer. Braggart. Role model. Symbol of peace.
As residents of the Upper Valley reacted Saturday of the death of boxing legend and humanitarian Muhammad Ali from complications from Parkinson’s disease, there was no shortage of opinions.
“Everyone has an Ali story,” said Dartmouth College liberal arts professor Harvey Frommer, a Lyme resident who has written 50 books, including one, It Happened in Miami, in which Ali’s friends and acquaintances shared tales of his arrival in that city.
Frommer said he never expected he would have his own Ali story until he stepped onto an elevator in the Empire State Building, headed to a meeting with his publishers.
“There was Muhammad Ali,” Frommer said, “with two big black guys flanking him.”
Wanting an autograph, Frommer said, he reached into his suit jacket to take out a pen and notecard.
“One of these big bruisers grabbed my wrist,” said Frommer. “But Muhammad gently slapped his face and said ‘You’re a dummy! You’re only supposed to protect me from my enemies.’”
Frommer said he still has the index card to this day.
“To Harvey,” it says. “You’re the Greatest. Muhammad Ali.”
Frommer, who has been teaching at Dartmouth’s Masters of Arts in Liberal Studies Program for 20 years, said Ali’s legacy is providing a positive role model, not only for black athletes, but for African-Americans in general.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see somebody of his ilk again,” said Frommer.
Bob Obdrzalek, owner of the Springfield Boxing Club in Springfield, Vt., said he has a copy of the iconic photograph of Ali looming over the prone Sonny Liston on the wall of his gym, which he opened about 10 years ago.
Ali, he said, boxed like the Olympic champion he was. “His boxing style was a very technical style,” Obdrzalek said. “What he did, you could see it was art.”
Obdrzalek, who boxed in his native Czechoslovakia and has been coaching and training boxers for more than 50 years, including at the recreation centers in Newport and Claremont, said there are no boxers like Ali today. “You cannot see boxers like him now. You cannot find them,” he said. “They don’t have speed like Ali. Nobody has speed like Ali. And speed means power.”
Unfortunately, he said, he thinks Ali boxed too long and took too many beatings, especially later in his career. “It wasn’t necessary,” he said
Aaron Luce, 24, said that, as a young black man growing up in a mostly white community like Lebanon, it wasn’t easy for him to blend into a crowd. Ali, he said, provided a good example of a person who was comfortable enough in his own skin to dispel, or at least shrug off, tension.
“He was one of my heroes growing up,” said Luce.
While he doesn’t condone Ali’s trademark brashness, Luce said, he respected that Ali was one of the few in the world who could back it up.
“He’s everywhere,” said Luce. “Even people who don’t know anything about boxing know about him.”
In Randolph, Alicia Roderigue, 24, said she had heard about Ali’s death before coming to an economic opportunities conference at the Vermont Technical College.
For her, Roderigue said, Ali was the first person to define the Muslim faith in her mind.
“It was actually through his association with the faith that I first learned about Islam quite a bit,” she said, “and I really appreciate a lot of the principles that he preached during his civil rights work.”
Though the years have burnished Ali’s legend in the realm of public opinion, the anger stirred by his political views and personal demeanor have also survived.
In downtown Lebanon, Mark Klemm, co-owner of Baan Muay Thai Academy, said the legacy of Ali’s arrogance and harsh public criticisms of his opponents is a generation of fighters who have abandoned the rules of common courtesy in the ring.
“I teach my people to be very humble and let your hands do the talking,” said Klemm, 33. “There’s tons of people that look up to him in the boxing community, and they try to imitate him.”
Klemm, who is a Navy veteran, said he also was bothered by Ali’s status as a “draft dodger.”
Those who support Ali’s political views say they were just more evidence of his greatness.
Bill Secord, 76, of West Lebanon, said growing up with Muhammad Ali allowed him to watch his life unfold in stages. At first, he said, “he was a great entertainer.” But Ali’s public sacrifices for his political stances, he said, showed him to be a “serious, moral person.”
“I respected his taking a stand. It was a great risk,” Secord said. “I think it lent weight to the whole peace movement.”
Former Valley News sports writer Bruce Wood, who in 1979 wrote his master’s thesis at Pennsylvania State University on Ali and now runs the Big Green Alert premium website (www.greenalertfootball.com), said his research showed that public perceptions of Ali grew more favorable as criticism of the Vietnam War ramped up.
In 30 years, Wood said, Ali’s legacy will likely remain unchanged.
“I think it will always be the same thing,” said Wood. “He’s the greatest. He told us, and he backed it up.”
Valley News staff writer Ernie Kohlsaat contributed to this report. Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3211.