Thinking about Muhammad Ali,
Childhood & the Audacity to Dream
by #Lee aka #EPmijo
I've been a fan of boxing for a majority of my life. My earliest memories came in the form of a video game from the 80s that Nintendo released called Mike Tyson's Punchout. I was in the 3rd grade. I remember the first time I got to play the video game was at my friend Charles' house. He had just recently moved into the neighborhood but was only there for a short time. At one point my mom invited, him, his mother and grandmother to stay at our house for a couple of days. I don't remember why. I remember one day when my neighborhood friends and I visited his house to see if he could come outside his mom asked us if we were hungry and welcomed us in for some burritos. As I walked into the two story home, there was barely any furniture. All I remember seeing was a small TV on the floor with a bunch of wires that connected to a Nintendo. We all gathered around the TV set with my friend Charles and played Mike Tyson's Punchout.
My favorite video games were always sport ones like Double Dribble, Tecmo Bowl, Blades of Steel, Bad New Baseball, Track & Field, Excite Bike, and even volleyball games like Super Spike. I spent as much time as my friends would allow borrowing Mike Tyson's Punchout. It's the earliest recollection I have of boxing which became my gateway into the real world of boxing as a fan.
Before this moment I was introduced to the art of fighting through karate. My Dad trained in Taekwondo since before I was born and had already achieved his black belt. He brought me along to the dojo where he trained and signed me up when I was about six years old. I started off as a white belt and ended as a white belt. My memory of this experience was all bad. I had the most difficult time comprehending what they were teaching me. The most traumatic moment was when it was my turn to spar. All I remember was being smothered with kicks and punches to my body guard. It was my last memory of ever walking inside the dojo again.
Shortly after that, I started watching boxing fights on the USA Network every Tuesday night with my Dad. I had a virtual boxing bug playing Mike Tyson's Punchout but was in awe of the real and raw talent of fighters who were on the come up... boxers such as Roy Jones, Jr. Oba Carr, Pernell Whitaker, James Toney, Bernard Hopkins, Oscar De Lay Hoya, and others. I was also introduced to the names of guys that had been in the game for a while like Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, and Hector Camacho. Up to this point, the "who's who" of the boxing world was all new to me. My first passion was basketball, so I spent a majority of my time playing the sport outside and collecting basketball trading cards.
Of course I knew Mike Tyson was real, but my only exposure to his likeness in 1990 was through a video game character. When I started to follow real boxers for the first time, Tyson was already entering another turning point in his career outside of the ring. What I knew about boxing was limited to what I saw on the USA Network and maybe a couple of nights where HBO or Showtime extended a free weekend through our cable provider. Those nights when the free weekend preview fell on a boxing night made me feel like the luckiest kid in the world.
Boxing became such a big part of how me and my Dad bonded that he signed us up for boxing lessons at the Nations Tobins gym in the early 90s. It was one of the most memorable moments of my life with my father and the most challenging too. Especially the cardio, jump rope, hand wrap, and the offense and defensive combinations we exchanged with the trainer. The trainer's name was John. The boxing space was as hot as an oven, especially during the summer and made even more humid because of the funk of sweat and body odor. The boxing room was furthest from the entrance which made it feel furthest from breathable air. It was a suffocating place to exercise. It was also an intimidating space to be in especially when Blue trained. Blue was a real fighter and massive like a bear with dark brown skin. I imagined then that he must've been a super hairy heavy weight. I think he got his nickname from his dark blue eye color. I could barely tell from the few glances I tried to avoid as he paced back and forth breathing like a hulk. Similar to my experience with karate, the lessons I got from John were just as complex and difficult for me to understand. Right away I simply felt like I wasn't built for any sort of fighting. One memory I recall was when the trainer John asked me to put up my hands and make a fist. He looked at the slant in my knuckles and told me how weak my hands were and how we'd have to work on that. I didn't have any desire to fight but I really enjoyed this time with my Dad. It also was a really cool feeling being able to have some sort of real life connection to what boxers do since my fandom continued to increase every time I watched Tuesday Night Fights.
Since we were visiting the boxing gym on a weekly basis my Dad found out that a well known boxer by the name of Oscar De La Hoya was going to visit the gym to promote his upcoming fight. The event was free and open to the public. I couldn't wait to meet De La Hoya who I knew of from a couple of televised fights. At the time he was just starting to make a name for himself. The crowd that morning was just a few people as we lined up to meet De La Hoya and get his autograph. About a year later when he returned as champ, those lines turned into crowds of mostly women. We got the chance to talk to De La Hoya who signed all kinds of stuff that I brought from magazine cut outs and fliers I picked up at the gym. My Dad recorded our encounter with De La Hoya on camera. He asked the soon to be champ if he could show us his lethal hands and make fists. Thinking back to this memory it reminds me of when the trainer asked me to put up my fists.
Even though I never had the heart or confidence to step foot in a ring, I kept up with my favorite fighters on USA Network. By the time I got to middle school I became so interested in boxing that I started doing school projects about it. At the Fort Bliss Mickelsen Library I found out about the "Brown Bomber" Joe Louis and designed a biographical poster that my teacher thought was so good she asked to keep it. Around the same time, I became much more passionate about reading and learning of specific topics related to history, youth, and sports. I checked out books like Frank Bonham's Durango Street, Walter Dean Myers Scorpions, and an unforgettable boxing story by Robert Lipsyte called The Contender.
This month the world is reflecting on the passing of Muhammad Ali. Today I read a piece published in the June 20, 2016 Time Magazine by Robert Lipsyte titled 'ALI, Champion, Outcast, Hero, Legend'. Before Ali passed I learned about the depth of Lipsyte's relationship to Ali's career listening to the Edge of Sports podcast with Dave Zirin. Zirin has featured Lipsyte on his podcast a couple of times. It took me back to when I first fell in love with the "boxing story" reading Lipsyte's The Contender. While each Ali story I read or listen to today digs further and further into Ali's greatest battles in and outside of the ring, it leaves me wanting to know more about Ali's childhood and his Louisville upbringing. I think about what Ilysah Shabazz, daughter of Malcolm X, recently published with illustrator AG Ford of her father's upbringing. Instead of presenting a larger than life figure as a larger than life figure, Shabazz and Ford introduce young readers to Malcolm as child; a story about children for children; an experience of family triumph and love and the traumatic struggle of loss, setbacks and tragedy.
Even with as much as I've learned about Ali's life in the past 15 years, there is very little I know about Ali as child, Ali as young Cassius. What I really liked about the I Am Ali documentary is how Ali tape recorded his conversations with his children. To me it reflected something special about Ali's youthful self and his hope to capture those simple moments talking to his children as he continued to age and suffer from a neurological disease. Searching through the local library catalogue I think there are stories yet to be written and illustrated about Ali's childhood. I imagine these books to display images of Ali in his Louisville home. Artwork that celebrate his family. Scenes that capture the joy, pain, and sounds of his early Louisville years. Stories that will matter to a child's imagination and show them who Ali was when he was their age. I can only imagine the kind of life authors and illustrators can paint in the imaginations of youth showing young Cassius dream and predict that he WILL become world champion. Telling the story in a way that helps children imagine their own future and the feeling to declare your dreams as Ali did when he raised his clenched fists as a little boy. To have the audacity to dream of something so great only for that dream to manifest itself into the reality of the entire world forever and ever.
In remembering Ali, I dream of a more creative way to help the future remember him too.
#Lee aka #EPmijo