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Faculty, staff reflect on Muhammad Ali and his Northeastern ties

Jack Grinold says watching heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali’s training sessions “were some of the most delightful afternoons I’ve ever spent.”

Northeastern’s legendary sports information director was only a couple years on the job when Ali trained at what was then Santos Gym at Boston Arena—and is now the Varsity Club at Matthews Arena—ahead of the champ’s rematch with Sonny Liston, which was to be in November 1964 in Boston. (The fight was pushed back to May 1965 after Ali needed emergency surgery to repair a hernia; the bout was also moved to Lewiston, Maine.)

Grinold described Ali as a handsome, brash young kid, and “charismatic beyond belief.” He recalled attending about a half dozen of Ali’s training sessions, where as many as 200 people came to catch a glimpse of the self-proclaimed “greatest.” Grinold described the theater of Ali not only training but also delivering soliloquies about Liston and running around with a big bucket of honey “to lure out Sonny,” whose nickname was “Big Bear.”

“It was half athletics, half comedy show,” Grinold said by phone Saturday afternoon.

Ali, an iconic and transcendent figure, died Friday at the age of 74. Ali had battled Parkinson’s disease for many years and had reportedly been hospitalized with respiratory problems.

Muhammad Ali at the Grand Opening Gala of the Muhammad Ali Center in November 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by David R. Lutman/Getty Images via Istock

Muhammad Ali at the Grand Opening Gala of the Muhammad Ali Center in November 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by David R. Lutman/Getty Images via Istock

The Greatest

Many consider Ali the greatest fighter ever. Yet it was his life outside the ring through which he transcended sports. Ali spoke out on race relations in America and in 1967 refused to join the U.S. Army and fight in Vietnam. Later in life, he was heralded for his humanitarian efforts and became a global symbol for peace.

In 1994, Northeastern celebrated Ali by presenting him with an honorary doctorate in public service and inducting him as the inaugural member of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society’s Hall of Fame, which was established to recognize athletes who have made outstanding contributions to society through their participation in sport.

At the heart of our center’s work is the question of what is the responsibility of athletes. It’s to use their position to better the world. No one has done better than Ali.
— Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society

‘A transcendent world figure’

Dan Lebowitz, who has served as the center’s executive director since October 2008, described Ali in a phone interview Saturday as “an ambassador of social justice and good will.” He noted that Ali helped move forward the international conversation on race relations—“Ali was a transcendent world figure much like Nelson Mandela,” he said—and explained that his stance as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War while he was champion created a larger national conversation about the war. Those actions influenced how the country has viewed America’s role in wars since, he said.

Lebowitz said Ali courageously used the ubiquitous platform of sport to challenge the status quo, social norms, and the institutionalizations of inequity. And Ali’s embodiment of and allegiance to those values, Lebowitz added, led to the courage and conviction of both athletes and non-athletes to recognize and publicly challenge social injustices to better the world.

“At the heart of our center’s work is the question of what is the responsibility of athletes,” Lebowitz said. “It’s to use their position to better the world. No one has done better than Ali.”

Muhammad Ali waves to the crowd at Northeastern's Hall of Fame ceremony in 1994. Photo via Northeastern University archives

Muhammad Ali waves to the crowd at the 1994 Hall of Fame ceremony held by Northeastern. Photo via Northeastern University archives

Born Cassius Clay, he abandoned what he called his “slave name” and announced his affiliation with the Nation of Islam in 1964 shortly after defeating Liston for the first time. His refusal to join the Army led to Ali being stripped of his title and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspending his boxing license.

Michael Meltsner, as the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund’s first assistant counsel, represented him in the case that helped restore his boxing career. In his 2006 memoir, The Making of a Civil Rights Lawyer, Meltsner—now the George J. and Kathleen Waters Matthews Distinguished University Professor of Law at Northeastern’s School of Law—described growing up reading the sports pages and listening to boxing radio broadcasts with his father. He remembered hearing that some boxers who were convicted of crimes were licensed to box in New York. His research soon found that state regulators had licensed more than 240 people with criminal records, among them “murderers, rapists, burglars, robbers, and Army deserters.” Meltsner said this point proved critical in a federal judge’s decision to force the state athletic commission to reinstate Ali’s license, on the grounds that Ali being denied a license to fight violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection of laws.

In 1994, Meltsner was with Ali again at the Hall of Fame ceremony held by Northeastern. In a phone interview Saturday, Meltsner said he was proud of being part of that case and reflected on how it “connected with his own life serendipitously,” noting his legal strategy’s connection to his father.

On Saturday, Sarah Jackson, assistant professor of communication studies, tweeted: When I wrote my book about black celebrity activism & the media, I wrote of #MuhammadAli. He inspired it all really.

Roger Abrams, Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern and an expert in sports law, wrote a 2013 book Playing Tough: The World of Politics and Sports in which he dedicated one chapter to Ali. In an email Saturday, Abrams wrote of Ali’s refusal to join the Army and that he remained steadfast as the country changed its view on Vietnam.

“Although many could not understand Ali’s conversion to Islam, they began to forgive him as they realized he was right all along,” he wrote. “The ultimate result, of course, came in 1996 when Ali lit the Olympic Torch at the Atlanta Olympics.

“Ali always boasted he was the greatest, and then he showed us it was true.”

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