Conclusion—"I want to see the loser:" We loved last Friday's memorial service for Muhammad Ali.
We saw some of the most elevated speeches we've seen in a very long time—speeches about the desire to let everyone be us.
We also saw some humorous speeches which advanced similar ideals. One was delivered by Billy Crystal, a comedian who breaks the rules of his guild 1) by routinely being funny and 2) by being appropriate.
Crystal was funny this day, as he typically is. He also described the ideals which were brilliantly articulated by Attalah Shabazz, by Natasha Mundkur and by Lonnie Ali.
Complete with impressions of Howard Cosell and Muhammad Ali, Crystal told a story about the way he first met Ali, way back in 1974, when only one of the men was famous. Crystal went on to explain where their friendship led:
CRYSTAL (6/10/16): He came to anything I asked him to do. Most memorable: He was an honorary chairman for a dinner at a very important event where I was being honored by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He did all of this promotion for it. He came to the dinner. He sat with my family the entire evening. He took photographs with everybody; the most famous Muslim man in the world honoring his Jewish friend.We hope that Jerusalem theater group works with young people like the 19-year-old Mundkur, who made such a dramatic speech last Friday. We're grateful that we got to see her inspiring, five-minute presentation. She joined Shabazz and Lonnie Ali in making the most uplifting public statements we've seen in a very long time.
Because he was there, we raised a great deal of money, and I was able to use it to endow the university in Jerusalem with something that I told him about. It was something he loved the theory of, and it thrives to this day. It’s called Peace Through the Performing Arts. It’s a theater group where Israeli, Arab and Palestinian actors, writers and directors all work together in peace, creating original works of art. And that doesn’t happen without him.
Shabazz, Mundkur and Ali spoke about the desire to see everyone get to be us. The thrill we derived from their speeches has been balanced this week by ESPN's depressing, five-part "Made in America" film, which drenches us in the depressing culture of narrative, tribe and division.
(Yes, we just finished watching the deeply depressing Part 5 of the ESPN production. For some reason, the five installments became available through our free On Demand service before they aired on ESPN.)
ESPN examined aspects of our current American culture, which is deeply invested in tribe and tribal script. In our view, our own liberal tribe is deeply invested in tribal identity and script.
This exclusionary culture doesn't just obtain Over There, among Those People, The Others! Increasingly, we liberals are drenched in that culture too.
Last Friday, some brilliant speakers spoke about the desire to break down tribal separations. That said, one of the simplest lessons from the service came from a second speech which was largely humorous in tone.
This speech was delivered by John Ramsey, a Louisville sports radio host and a friend of Muhammad Ali's.
Billy Crystal is nationally famous; John Ramsey isn't. But he gave a superbly humorous speech, just as Crystal did.
For ourselves, we like our moral lessons extremely simple. Ramsey delivered one such lesson as he told a story about a surprising request.
"You know, Muhammad was blessed with many gifts," Ramsey said, "and he was a wise and faithful steward of those gifts." Having offered that as his framework, he launched a story about a trip to the Sydney Olympics:
RAMSEY (6/10/16): I remember, back in 2000, I made a trip to the Summer Olympics with Muhammad, and one day he decided we were going to go see a boxing match.After the American won, Ramsey was filled with patriotic pride. According to Ramsey, Ali posed with the winning fighter, then made a surprising request:
And I remember, we're ringside, the American wins, 15,000 people are chanting, "USA! USA!" And I thought, "This is my Olympic moment."
You know, I was filled with patriotic pride?
RAMSEY (continuing directly): The boxer came down from the ring, he took the obligatory picture with Muhammad, the fist-to-chin shot.Ali had taken the standard photographs with the victorious fighter. Those photographs can still be seen on line.
Hundreds of photographers from around the world were taking pictures. You know, thousands of people, cheering for Muhammad and this victorious fighter.
And then Muhammad leaned down to me, whispered in my ear, said:
"I want to see the loser."
I said, "Excuse me?"
"I want to see the loser."
But Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest," also wanted to see the loser! In the last part of the story which we'll post, Ramsey begins to explain what happened next:
RAMSEY (continuing directly): So I motioned over to an Olympic official and I said, "You know, Muhammad wants to see the loser. Can we go to the losing locker room?"As he continued, Ramsey described what happened that day in the loser's locker room. He ended with a humorous story about something Ali said later on in the car.
And we get to the losing locker room and there's not tens of thousands of people, there's not any photographers, there's just a kid in the corner on a stool, he's got a towel around his neck, he's got a bloody mouse under his eye. This has got to be the lowest point of his athletic career...
And the vibe in that room was literally the lowest of low.
Here at THE HOWLER, we like the kind of people who want to see the loser. We're going to guess that Natasha Mundkur knows what it is to feel for the loser. From that point, it's a fairly short step to letting more people be us.
If you want to see John Ramsey's speech, just click here; he starts at 2:16:00. He followed the transcendent Mundkur and did a superlative job.
(He too does a top-notch Ali impression.)
For the record, the victorious American fighter with whom Ali posed seems to have been Clarence Vinson. He went on to win the bronze medal in the bantamweight division at the Sydney Olympics.
The fight took place on September 16, 2000. For the AP report, click here.
"The loser" that day was Rachid Bouaita, a French fighter who was eliminated by Vinson in this, the competition's first round.
Last Friday, Ramsey explained what happened when Ali went to see Bouaita in a deserted room. We can't verify his story, but it involves an extremely simple moral lesson.
In our view, such simple lessons are the best. Next week, we'll continue to ask a simple question:
What might our own liberal tribe learn from stories like this?
Tomorrow: Where does "identity" come from?