My Night with Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was a complex and imperfect hero who reflected the turbulence of his time, a reality lost in some eulogies after his death but that playwright Stephen Orlov recalls from a night with Ali 46 years ago.

By Stephen Orlov

There will never be another like him. And, in 1970, I had the good fortune of sharing a memorable night with the Champ, the greatest sports figure in modern history, at the height of his boxing prowess and controversial career.

Muhammad Ali was then out on bail for dodging the draft. He had been stripped of his heavyweight title, banishing him from the ring, and he needed money for his legal fees. The Champ was touring college campuses across America, lecturing mostly white students about his Muslim faith and the sins of racism at home and war abroad.

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

I was president of the Junior Class at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Ali was my top choice for our annual class speaker that March of 1970.  From the moment I had first watched the young cocky boxer on the Ed Sullivan Show, skipping rope and brashly spouting in rhyme poetic victory predictions about his upcoming match, he became my sports idol.

His charisma on and off the ring was captivating.  Ali’s stand against racism and the Vietnam War later inspired my activism as a leader of the anti-war strike at Colby, provoked six weeks after his visit to our campus by the National Guard shootings of students at Kent State.

Ali first claimed the heavyweight title with his shocking technical knockout of Sonny Liston in 1964, the same year Dylan released his protest anthem, The Times They Are a-Changin’, and 15 months after, he beat Liston again in nearby Lewiston. By the time Ali came to Colby five years later, a tidal wave of counter-cultural rebellion had engulfed the country, empowering the great social movements of the day — civil rights and black power, anti-war and feminism; Native and Gay rights; the United Farm Workers’ boycott and Earth-Day environmentalism.

The college gym was packed that night, and a crowd of students, professors and town folks who couldn’t get a seat stood outside weathering the cold to hear his talk…

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