Berkeley professor Dr. Harry Edwards talks on the importance and impact of Muhammad Ali

UC Berkeley Sociology Professor Emeritus Dr. Harry Edwards recalls his history with The Greatest: Muhammad Ali.

"Don't count the days; make the days count."

Muhammad Ali, has succumbed to respiratory complications due to Parkinson's Disease, passing away in Scottsdale, Ariz., at the age of 74.

Finally, free from the ravages, the prison of his infirmity, the Louisville Lip has that legendarily sharp silver tongue back. He can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee once again, but he doesn't have to fight anymore.

"I've always had a problem with him referring to himself as The Greatest, and with other people referring to him as The Greatest," Dr. Harry Edwards said on ESPN on Friday night, just hours after Ali's death. Edwards, a Professor Emeritus of Sociology at UC Berkeley -- California -- is the author of The Revolt of the Black Athlete.

"I've studied athletes, I've been around great athletes -- Kareem [Abdul-Jabar], of course, Bill Russell, Jim Brown I know very well, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott -- all of these great athletes I know, and if they were all in a room, they would come over to pay respect to Muhammad Ali, the social part of it, the political part of it."

For a generation now entering its 30s, Ali's lighting of the Olympic Torch in Atlanta, Ga., is our first, truly great, sporting memory. For that moment, the world froze. There is a connection -- however small -- between Ali and the Bay Area. His stance against the war in Vietnam certainly jibed with the climate around Berkeley, San Francisco and Oakland in the 1960s -- the cradle of the Free Speech Movement and the most fiery of anti-war protests -- but he also made a stop in the Bay on his way to becoming an Olympic gold medalist.

"He wasn't Muhammad Ali, originally, when I met him," Edwards said. "I first met him when I was at San Jose State University. Julius Menendez was the boxing coach, he was at the Rome Olympics in 1960, and he had the boxing team practicing at San Jose State, and that was the first tim I met Cassius Clay. Subsequently, when I organized the Olympic Project for Human Rights, one of the demands that we made was that his boxing access and license be given back to him after he had been deprived of that for refusing to be inducted into the military."

Rarely has a single step not taken -- Ali's refusal to step forward to be inducted into the armed services -- been such a great stride.

"When I was at Cornell University in 1969, we invited him up to speak, I spent the day with him there, so I had contact with him from the time I was about 17 years old, up until I had really come of age in the late 1960s," Edwards said. "Coming out of East St. Louis, having been associated with Dr. King, literally two months before he was assassinated, having spent some time with Malcolm X about six months before he was assassinated, I wrote my Master's thesis on the Black Muslim family, and talked to some of the people in Malcolm's group in New York City while I was at Cornell. I was working with students, with Bobby Kennedy, on Bobby Kennedy's election. He was anti-war, and we were all anti-war."

"He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life." -- Muhammad Ali

In the fight for civil rights, the two greatest luminaries were the pacifist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the somewhat more inflammatory Malcolm X. Before he first won the World Heavyweight Title, unbeknownst to the general public, then-Cassius Clay had joined Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. It wasn't until after he beat Sonny Liston in Miami, Fla., for the crown that he publicly announced that he was now Muhammad Ali.

When Ali refused to take that step forward and be inducted, King -- who at that point was loathe to address the war and stand in opposition to Lyndon Johnson -- stood in his corner.

"I would give him my strongest support," King said.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" Ali said. "No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over."

Ali was operatically oppositional, daringly demonstrative.

"I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I'm so mean I make medicine sick." -- Muhammad Ali

Most pointedly, Ali said, "My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America," Ali said. "And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn't put no dogs on me, they didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father ... Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."

With Ali's death, a light has gone out in the world, beyond boxing, beyond sport. There have been two great lights in 20th century sports: Jackie Robinson, and Ali. Robinson was a pressure cooker, with a lid screwed down on his emotions. Ali was a raging cauldron, a kettle full of boiling, flaming oil. Both were the men that America needed, both a product of their respective ages, and yet defiant of them.

"Ali became a focus for a lot of us," Edwards said.

Ali was the ultimate rebel. He was irascibly, incorrigibly incandescent. He took on the government. He refused to back down. He is widely credited with lighting the fuse on hip hop culture with his verses, his rhymes, his brash bravado. His poetry -- both pugilistic and prosaic -- was irrepressible. It was unafraid, and -- like him -- unapologetic.

Oh, and by the way, before he was declared 1A for the Vietnam draft, he was 1Y, because he was functionally illiterate. Illiterate, and yet, he fathered a movement that's as strong today -- in the Bay Area, particularly -- as any mode of artistic expression for the Black community.

"He penetrated every dimension of American culture," Edwards said. "He was the difference, in terms of the athletes of the 1960s. He was not Joe Louis. [Tommie] Smith and [John] Carlos were not Jesse Owens. Curt Flood was not Jackie Robinson. Bill Russell was not the Harlem Globetrotters. Arthur Ashe was a unique individual, but framing it all up, the one who really projected and started that, legitimized that, was Muhammad Ali. To call him The Greatest -- The Greatest compared to what? There's no comparison. You can name all of the athletes, one after the other, and then, you say 'Ali,' and they just fade away."

He was raw, he was insightful, he was human. His stand on Vietnam cost him thee of the best years in his prime. He never knew that he would fight again. Beyond that, for all he knew, he was headed to prison -- "Take me to jail," he said. He was stripped of his crown in 1967, at age 25, and didn't fight again until October of 1970.

Imagine an athlete, today, taking that kind of stand.

"He was the father of the modern athlete -- the modern athlete who stood up and spoke out for issues beyond the athletic arena," Edwards said. "He moved sports out of the arena and toward the department of human affairs."

When he once again fought Joe Frazier for the crown in 1971 at Madison Square Garden, he was roundly booed. Three years later, in Kinshasa, Zaire, 60,000 fans were cheering his name, as he regained his title.

"I don't think that Ali was seriously bothered by people who didn't like him," Edwards said. "He was aware, as were many people during that generation -- he was two years older than I am -- that we were disliked widely disliked in American society simply because we were Black. That wasn't something that you got excited about. I think that what happened, over a period of time, is that people came to understand what motivated him, the kinds of issues that he was concerned about, and the fact that he put everything on the line to articulate those issues, and he didn't just articulate them for himself; he really didn't just articulate issues for Black America. He articulated issues for humanity in a very definitive sense. He was the quintessential humanitarian, especially during his post-boxing years."

His bullying of Frazier rankled Frazier to the grave, and, publicly, Ali came to regret it, in his later years. In his twilight, five years after stealing the Olympic Games with his lighting of the torch, Ali begged for peace in the shadow of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. What was once indomitable fury had turned into a plea for understanding.

In December, he released a statement criticizing presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

"We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda," Ali said.

And yet ...

It's said that Babe Ruth invented the superstar athlete. Ali perfected it.

But, Ali, himself, was far from perfect, and he acknowledged that.

The greatest advice he gave to his grandson, Biaggio Ali-Walsh? Be humble. Imagine that.

“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20," Ali said, "has wasted 30 years of his life."

That's what made him The Greatest. That's what made him transcendent.

"'Greatest,'" Edwards said, "doesn't really capture him. It's not big enough. It doesn't do him justice. To say that he's The Greatest, that really doesn't get it done." Top Stories