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End Of An Era: Boxing Great Muhammad Ali Dies At 74


And we're talking more today about the death of Muhammad Ali. He died last night in Phoenix at the age of 74. The everlasting heavyweight champion of the world said he'd like to be remembered as a man who, quote, "became a leader and a champion of his people." And he added I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was. We're going to turn now to Stephen Carter, writer and professor at the Yale Law School. Good morning, Stephen.

STEPHEN CARTER: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: What did Muhammad Ali mean to so many people, including you, my friend, the fancy Yale-y (ph) law prof?

CARTER: I really, in a sense, like a lot of young people, especially young black people of my generation, grew up with Muhammad Ali. Here was a man who was a champion, the best at his sport but who was also defiant of authority, determined to follow his God in his way and who stood up for causes - the war, the civil rights movement and others - at a time when, although it's easy to forget, a lot of people still were very reluctant to hold those causes dear.

SIMON: Yeah. And how do we add that together with the fact that, you know, the source of his fame was this sport where men beat each other. I mean, I've done - I did a series years ago on brain damage in boxing and I've grown to hate boxing. But I always loved Muhammad Ali.

CARTER: I think we all did. And we all felt that way, that here was a man who transformed the public image of the sport in a sense. Before Ali, boxing was something that people watched in smoky bars, and it was seen as not quite a thing for the educated and and the elites to care about. And here was a man who, through his brilliance, through his ability to articulate great ideas and frankly through his audacity in the predictions he made and in the things he said, drew around him a coterie of intellectuals and other followers. He turned the sport into something that people like George Plimpton and Norman Mailer would write about.

SIMON: Yeah. David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, winds up writing a great biography about him. There was a time when the editor of The New Yorker wouldn't touch a boxing figure.

CARTER: (Laughter) No, it's really true. He - I think that Dave Kindred, who was the sports editor of The New York Times for so many years - or sportswriter at The New York Times for so many years - wrote that before Ali, sports was mostly slow dancing and Ali turned it into rock 'n' roll. He brought it - he brought boxing into the mainstream and he also became very quickly one of the most recognizable faces on the Earth because of, again, the courageous stands that he took and the controversy that surrounded him.

SIMON: Yeah. And what do we make of that, the world figure that he became? I mean, part of it might be that communications technology could make someone a world figure. But he - boy, he was something amazing that way, too.

CARTER: Well, you have to think back to 1967 when here he was the champion - the world champion and he was refusing induction into - for the Selective Service. He refused induction. He was stripped of his title. He was criticized in the halls of Congress and across the country. He left millions of dollars on the table. And he said he didn't care what they did to him as long as he never had to go kill anybody.

This was a powerful moment, and it resonated around the world because remember that the Vietnam War around the world was seen as a puzzlement for most people. And they couldn't understand why Americans supported this so vigorously. And here was this great champion turning against it at enormous personal cost. And that, I think, helped to build the legend that became the story of Muhammad Ali.

SIMON: And what do we make of us as a country? Because when he won the championship, it must be said, unexpectedly in 1964, there was still segregation in many corners of the United States. He was very controversial and not beloved and today we're remembering him as - well, as just a great citizen of the world.

CARTER: One of the great things about Ali's story is exactly that he could rise from the background that he did at the time that he did from this figure who generates this controversy become, in a sense, this worldwide ambassador for peace, this enormous hero. And you asked a few minutes ago about what about the sport of boxing, and I think it's fair to say that the sport of boxing is dying, as it should. It's a terribly brutal thing. And Ali, in a sense, although he brought it to a prominence, also helped bring it down because most of us can remember seeing Ali at the 1996 Olympics when he was the athlete who lit the flame. And there he was basically decrepit. He was trembling. He was shuffling. This wasn't the man remembered who used to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Seeing Ali's public decline I think has helped as much as anything else to put one of the nails in the coffin of that brutal sport.

SIMON: Stephen Carter, remembering Muhammad Ali. And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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