Muhammad Ali turned 70 on Tuesday, and the three-time heavyweight champion who doubled as the most famous draft resistor in U.S. history remains larger than life in the American mind, despite being ravaged by Parkinson's disease. Two years ago, on a visit to Louisville, Ky., I was reminded why.
In a cab on the way to the Muhammad Ali Center downtown, I saw that my driver had a Vietnam Veterans of America patch on display by his license. I asked him about his experience in Southeast Asia, and he started talking a mile a minute about his time “in country,” how his “happiest days” were being a sniper in Vietnam. He even said: “You might not know this, being from Washington, D.C., but the most dangerous animal to hunt is man.” He then described the task in detail. He wanted to make sure I left his cab fully aware of his pride, patriotism and unwavering belief in the duty of going to war when country called.
I didn't engage the driver in a debate about Vietnam or U.S. imperialism, but given my reason for being in Louisville, I couldn't resist one question. I asked: “What do you think about Muhammad Ali? He opposed the war in Vietnam. He called it an illegal war aimed at increasing oppression throughout the globe.
“Now you're in a city where there is a Muhammad Ali Street and you're taking me to the Muhammad Ali Center. Does that bother you?”
Without skipping a beat, my cabdriver said, “Well, you have to love Ali.”