Marcus Cederstrom at Salon has an interesting counterfactual that shines an interesting perspective on the current "Tebowmania" surrounding the seemingly miraculous deeds of the young, hyper-Christian quarterback of the Denver Broncos. Cederstrom asks "what if Tebow were Muslim"? But Cederstrom uses that question as a springboard into recalling for his readers the shabby treatment that was accorded to one newly crowned heavyweight champion named Cassius Clay when he converted to Islam in the early 1960s.
And I remember very well indeed all the ruckus that surrounded the change from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali (which detoured first to Cassius X, a la Malcolm). I grew up in Louisville, Ali's hometown, while he was a promising local amateur boxer (whose bouts we could sometimes watch on a local-TV channel's Saturday afternoon show, "Tomorrow's Champions"), and was a huge fan of the young Clay when he turned pro and took on a string of what seemed like (a la Joe Louis) bums of the month (beginning with one Tunney Hunsaker).
But when he "turned Muslim" right after beating Liston for the title, Louisvillians were horrified, and angry (even before the kerfuffle over Vietnam and his refusing to be drafted) - and the national press turned on him, mocked him as a kind of stupid and impressionable "Negro" man-child who couldn't even pronounce "Ali" correctly. He only got a chance to become "the Greatest" because of the Supreme Court decision, which came after the country turned against the Vietnam war, and a younger generation of Americans were able to look past the Islam "thing" (something many Americans were able to do before 9-11) and count him a hero.
Cederstrom's essay (and some comments from a Facebook friend after I'd posted it to my "wall") also got me thinking about another counterfactual.
What if Ali hadn't missed those 4.5 years during what would have been the prime of his career? It was obvious to anyone who'd seen him fight before he was outlawed that when he came back, he wasn't the same fighter (and his manager, Angelo Dundee, said so as well) - not as fast, hands not as quick. He won his fights on savvy, and sheer will. But if his title hadn't been stripped, there was no one around then who could have defeated him. The late Joe Frazier's career might never have taken off, because the younger, quicker Ali would have disposed of him as a challenger. Ali might have retired before absorbing all those headshots (many of them from his three mega-fights with Frazier) that likely caused the infirmity that almost got him killed against Larry Holmes and has afflicted him to this day.
And I also have to wonder if the courts would have pressed so hard to strip his title if he'd remained simply Cassius Clay, the kid from Louisville (brash though he was - some called him the "Louisville Lip," or even - my favorite - "Gaseous Cassius") and not "turned Muslim."
As for Tebow? I have no doubt that if Tebow were Muslim and somehow expressing that on the field or in interviews with the same exuberance with which he now displays his Christianity, there'd be huge pressure on the Broncos' coach to bench him, on-field "miracles" or no.