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A Tribute for Muhammad Ali at the Barclays Center


There was another tribute for Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest.” This one was held in the ring at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday, June 25, 2016. Several months before the tribute, Mr. Brett Yormack, the CEO of the Barclays Center, invited me (and a guest) to join him at ringside for the championship fight between Keith Thurman and Shawn Porter. Later, he embellished the invite with an offer to join him in the ring with two champions – Daniel Jacobs (middleweight) and Deontay Wilder (heavyweight) in a tribute to Muhammad Ali.

On the night of the fight, there was the usual excitement that accompanies a major event. It seemed even more so for championship fights. Sitting at ringside, with my only son, Herb, Jr., my reflections soon turned to Muhammad Ali. How well I remember the classic fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman where all of Ali’s serpentine cunning, dazzling brilliance, amazing dexterity, flashing speed of hands and feet (“float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”), herculean stamina, unusual pain tolerance, undaunted fearlessness, awesome power, incredible endurance, and boundless confidence were on display.

Probably, his next-to greatest fight was with Ken Norton in 1973 in Madison Square Garden. Early in the fight, Norton broke Ali’s jaw. For the rest of the fight, Ali fought with a mouth full of blood and excruciating pain. Maybe, his greatest fight was against Parkinson’s disease. He refused to retreat, hide, or quit. He fought this dreaded disease to the end, exhibiting all of the qualities that made him the greatest. And, he never lost his sense of humor, playfulness, magic tricks, etc. 

I was with him near the beginning of the dreaded disease began to attack. We were in East Orange, NJ for a “Free South Africa” meeting. He came over to me, and said, “I never heard you preach. Can you preach?” I came face-to-face with him, looked him straight in the eyes, and said, sternly, “Can you fight? I preach like you fight.” He tightened his lips, and put on his best mocked serious look, and said, “You are preaching so-and-so. You’re the greatest preacher in the world.”

We were together in the suite at the Democratic National Convention in 2008. My daughter, Rev. Leah Daughtry, was the CEO. (By the way, she has made history. She is the CEO for the 2016 Democratic National Convention. It is the first time that there has been a repeat performance.) Again, he threw up his hand, and I did likewise. We bobbed and weaved, throwing make-believe punches at each other and smiling all of the time. We really had a great time. Yes, he was one of a kind. Yes, he was a Superstar!

I was the unofficial chaplain with the NY Jets for five years just after they had won Super Bowl III. I wondered what separated the Superstars from the regular stars. After all, when anyone reached the professional plateau, he or she has to be a star. I came to the conclusion, all things being equal, it was the pain tolerance. Superstars can perform at a high efficiency while bearing severe pain. What is true in the Sports World is true in any world. To succeed in life, you have to learn to endure “the whips and scorns of time, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to.”

Muhammad Ali was a Superstar, but his “superstar-ism” was not confined to the boxing ring. He brought all of his superlative qualities and “superstar-ism” to his racial pride and humanitarianism. When all things are considered, we have to agree with him that he was “the Greatest.” 

Now, the preliminary fights were over, and so was my reverie. Barry Baum, Barclays Center’s Executive Vice President & Chief Communications Officer, beckoned me from my seat to the edge of the ring. I was joined by Deontay Wilder, a giant of a man, but very friendly with a ready smile; and, Daniel Jacobs, effervescent and exceedingly pleasant. “He must be an exceptional fighter,” I thought to myself – not because he was the champ, but because he was unmarked. His handsome face was as smooth as a “baby’s bottom.”

We shared stories about growing up in Brownsville and environs. I was in a gang which was located around Dean, Bergen, and Pacific Streets bordered by Ralph and Saratoga Avenues. We fought the Socialistic Gents who were located in Brownsville. 

Standing at the edge of the ring, we were instructed when and where to enter the ring, and where to stand once in the ring. When it was time to get in the ring, I confessed, I felt a little jittery – reality was clashing with the past. The last time I was in the ring, and the last time I had on boxing gloves, I used to punch the big punching bag at my home as part of my exercise routine.

When it was time to enter the ring, we mounted the steps. The ropes around the ring were stretched wide enough to allow us to crawl through them. When my feet hit the soft canvas in the ring, I did all I could do to fetter the irresistible urge to dance around the ring. 

Standing in the center of the ring with Brett Yormack flanked by the two champions, looking out across over 12,000 yelling faces, I remember a conversation that Barry and I had earlier as we surveyed the mammoth, artistically-designed Arena; the vision of Bruce Ratner and others had come to realization. A few years before, there was nothing but a hole in the ground and a lot of fiery resistance. I thought of the Bible verse, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

Mr. Yormack introduced us. When my name was announced, I couldn’t resist any longer. I did my little dance and threw punches in the air the way boxers do as they are warming up for a fight. (I still shadowbox. That, too, is a part of my exercise routine.) Mr. Yormack gave his remarks, announcing the tribute to Muhammad Ali to the thunderous response, and then there was the reverential silence.

Thurman retained his championship with a controversial decision. When the decision was announced , there were scattered boo’s across the Arena. Before the decision was announced, my son asked me who I thought won the fight. I said, “Porter, but they would give the victory to Thurman.” Porter’s mauling, rough house aggressiveness had kept Thurman on the defensive for most of the fight, but it wasn’t decisive enough to dethrone a champ.

It was a thrilling night. For a brief moment, Father Time had turned backwards in his flight. I was young again, and loved ones and old friends had awakened from their eternal sleep. In those days so long ago, life was energy, dangerous, laughter, fun, and games. Life itself was a game, and we were “the boys of summer.” 

Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, mysteriously, like some mighty tsunami, white powder (heroin) came and swept it all away. We were no longer full of life, love, and laughter. We became lifeless – like zombies. Our bodies once pulsating with the zest and zeal were now prematurely aging, battered, bent, diseased, and sick. No longer were our eyes clear, and our minds sharp. 

We had dramatically changed – a veritable Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, driven to do anything to anybody to feed the insatiable “white demon.” Few would enjoy the threescore and ten promised by the Bible. We were “dead men walking”. 

The law came and sent us away to long prison years. They deemed us criminals and not sick and in need of medical attention, but like the phoenix bird of Greek mythology, we rose again and again from the ashes. And, in some sense, Muhammad Ali symbolized our struggle to keep coming back again and again and again against all kinds of opposing forces, for we are destined to be champions.

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