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Ali and me and my father

Posted on June 14, 2016 at 8:40 PM



The greatest is dead. And so is that forever signifier of innocence, mine and perhaps our country's too.

Muhammad Ali came to Manila in 1975 ostensibly to fight his ferocious archrival, Joe Frazier. I learned much later that he also came for a more sinister reason.

I was in the throes of high school a short jeepney ride away from the fight venue, Araneta Coliseum. I remember nearly all other life stopped for the event, the way Pacquiao's fights could halt even crime. But Ali-Frazier's Thrilla in Manila was different because it happened at home. None of Pacquiao's biggest fights ever did.

How times changed: in another era, the world's biggest show was staged in Manila; in the new millennium, the Philippines' most famous athlete, Pacquiao, preferred to compete elsewhere.

For the 14 brutal rounds of the Thrilla in Manila, and for days before and after, the Philippines felt like the center of the world, much of which might have heard about this archipelago for the first time.

As a teen-age sports fan with journalistic aspirations, I was aware that Ali was greater even than the boxing champ that he was. I was already trying to reconcile a basic contradiction in my mind: He was a ruthless gladiator, the king of a violent sport – yet he was also one of the world's most famous pacifists.

I loved the loud-mouth rebel with a cause because he spoke for me. I was mesmerized by him while growing up in America, when the media insisted on calling him Cassius Clay even after he repudiated the name as his "slave name." As Muhammad Ali, a Muslim convert in the mid-1960s, he refused to fight in the Vietnam War when the US government tried to draft him into the Army.

"No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger," was among his many memorable quotes. The boxing establishment stripped him of his title and his license to fight. He never gave in, continuing to give the Establishment an artfully verbal middle finger without resorting to profanity, a lesson that a certain modern-day leader could do worse than imbibe. Ali would eventually win his case in the U.S. Supreme Court and fight again.

All of this mattered to me while growing up in a white America in the 60s and 70s that still had little awareness of Filipinos. I was sometimes simply seen as being of the same look and race as the enemy of conservative America, the Vietnamese. At that time, fathers and brothers were being drafted to fight in Asia in a country not too far from the Philippines. But to many Americans then, the difference from Vietnam didn't matter; I was one of them. More than once, I heard the epithet "gook" in my presence.

As the scrawny brown kid in a sea of white faces, I had no one around me I could identify with or even look to for defense in case I decided to fight back. But in my mind's eye, I had Ali in my corner. He wasn’t white and he was proud of it. He didn’t care what anybody else thought.

Then he came to Manila a year after I did; a piece of my uneasy childhood had come home.

He didn't disappoint: he was punished by Frazier but still emerged a champion. The world was awed, and the Philippines shared in the glory. In his honor, the country's newest mall was named after him. For the next few years that's where I rode the first air conditioned bus down EDSA, the now defunct "Love Bus," another Imelda project with the word "love" in it.

As my teen-age innocence dissolved into the rage of the 80s, I realized that my hero had been used. He brought attention and glamor to a little known country under a dictatorial regime, just three years after the declaration of Martial Law. Ali was just one in a parade of world celebrities that passed through the Philippines under the Marcoses, legitimizing their rule especially in the eyes of the ruled. For the 20-something firebrand that I had become, Ali's pedestal crumbled.

It seemed Ali the fighter just faded out after his triumph in Manila, his career ending in less memorable contests. Another public Ali emerged in the 1990s to light the Olympic torch. He was now shockingly a whispering, stiff-as-wood opposite of the loquacious, nimble athlete that I saw conquer Frazier. The world learned that Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, which is usually a non-fatal neurological condition that weakens the afflicted until he appears to be moving in slow motion, often in danger of losing his balance. This disease striking a fighter known for dancing in the ring was like Beethoven losing his hearing.

Unlike other great athletes with a debilitating illness, Ali did not disappear from view. Instead, he appeared in public often and seemed to call attention to his condition, a proud man refusing to be driven into a shell of his former self. Public sympathy was tempered by admiration.

Several years ago, Parkinson's Disease, and Ali's example of how to deal with it, arrived in my life. My father Rod Severino – who had me as a young man and had always been physically fit – began to lose his balance. He would fall and more than once bloodied his head, frightening all his loved ones.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. But he was determined from the start not to disappear and hide his condition. My dad even agreed when one of his doctors asked if he could speak about it openly, to help others with the affliction feel unashamed.

Ali lived 32 years with Parkinson's Disease, enough time to inform many about how it can enfeeble even the greatest. Yet Ali also showed that longevity with dignity was still possible, as well as lucidity of mind and robustness of example.

By the time my father showed signs of Parkinson's in his 70s, we both knew it would not be the end of the world. He accepted it stoically, and perhaps with grateful awareness that there are much worse things that can happen to someone his age.

Last April at a big dinner in his honor, my usually wheelchair-bound father surprised everyone by standing up to address the crowd. His speech was soft and slow but clear, almost like Ali's. As if to show that his memory and mind were intact, he called out the names of some in the audience. I must admit to some sadness when I recall that this was the man who went camping and hiking with me as a boy. But how he has faced this challenge has reminded me, as Ali did, that greatness can exist in any condition and at any age. – Howie Severino

Categories: News, Sports, Opinion

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