CLEVELAND — When Muhammad Ali fought against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Jim Brown was in his corner.
The boxer and the football legend, two transcendent American sports icons, were fiercely loyal friends. Not only were they connected by their athletic greatness, Ali and Brown shared a social conscience and passion to see justice for all.
Undisputed champions for the world.
“He represented what a man should be in an America that’s free because he made people accept him as a man, as an equal and he was not afraid to represent himself in that way,” the 80-year-old Brown told the Associated Press on Saturday night. “That’s what I loved about
him. He could have definitely played it a different way.”
They admired each other and Brown said his deep affinity for Ali was based on his fearlessness and willingness to take chances. When others turned and ran or looked the other way, Ali stood firm, defiant.
“I had the admiration for him because he took it upon himself to risk everything for his manhood and to be a good American,” Brown said. “As I’ve thought about it, it’s about all of us being a part of this country and enjoying the equal rights as citizens in this country and because he was such a great athlete he was able to use the spotlight and use it probably like nobody else in history.”
A superstar running back for the Cleveland Browns, Brown retired at the peak of his career, walking away from his fame on the field to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. That, too, was dangerous but nothing compared to the stand Ali took against the war.
Citing his religious beliefs as a Muslim, Ali refused to enlist in the U.S. Army, and his viewpoint angered and outraged white Americans. He was eventually stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967.
Never one to back down himself, Brown wanted to help and invited several other prominent athletes, including Celtics star Bill Russell and UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to a summit in Cleveland. But before Brown and the others showed their public support for Ali, they questioned him for five hours to gauge his motives.
In the end, they were satisfied Ali’s intentions were genuine.
“He was asked every question that you could ask a person and he came through as totally sincere,” Brown said, “and it was his sincerity that made us become a group of one and we decided we would back him all the way and do anything we could do to bring attention to his situation and to let everybody know he was actually genuine about his position on the war based upon his religion.”
Whether playfully sparring with him at his home in California or visiting Ali when he trained in England, Brown always enjoyed being in his company.
Ali had a gift, and he wanted to share it with everyone.
“This man loved people, and everywhere I was ever with him, he always respected people and he loved good human beings,” Brown said. “He was definitely not prejudiced. The thing that he stood for was based on him being equal and having the freedom that everyone else had, but he always loved people.”
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