In a year of big losses, both public and personal, Muhammad Ali’s death really hits home and really saddens me. Ali was always bigger than life to me, and I’ve long had a fascination in his life and his boxing career.
Muhammad Ali was the first athlete I ever really idolized when I was a kid and in the 70’s he seemed to be everywhere. I remember being enraptured by his appearances on ABC’S Wide World of Sports, especially those famous interviews with the late Howard Cosell. In fifth and sixth grade I really got into books about sports and biographies of athletes and devoured every book I could find on Ali. Reading those books, learning about his amazing boxing skills, each fight was new to me. So I was sad when I read about his epic 1971 loss to Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century,” ecstatic about his 1974 knockout of George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” In 1978 I read every Sports Illustrated article about his winning the title for a third time over Leon Spinks and watched the re-broadcast of that fight on ABC.
Ali was really the first global superstar. At his peak – and remember, this was pre-internet – his face was the most recognized on the planet – more people knew who Ali was than the Pope or any world leader. Ali’s personality, and his talent, was simply incredible. He was unlike any other professional athlete, with an outsized personality that was perfect for the times, as televised sports grew in the 60’s and 70’s.
It’s easy to forget that before anything else Ali was a boxer, and still can be considered one of the greatest of all time. He was a heavyweight with a lightweight’s speed; he really could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” In his prime, his hand and foot speed was unlike any other heavyweight’s. He could slip punches, leaning way back, with his hands often down – untraditional and regarded as foolish by boxing veterans at the time – then strike with a pinpoint left jab and right hands. In addition, Ali was strong, and he could take a punch, who, unfortunately, took far too many in his career.
After refusing induction in the draft for the Vietnam War (a conscientious objector, Ali’s famous quote rang true: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietnam Cong.”) Ali was stripped of his title and banned from boxing in 1967. He was 25, the heavyweight champion of the world and undefeated, at the peak of his amazing boxing skills. It boggles my imagination when in think what could have been had he not lost those years. He possibly would have retired earlier, and not have the physical and neurological problems he suffered from the years of taking punishment.
Ali transcended sports and popular culture and truly had the courage of his convictions. In the 60’s as racial tension inflamed America, he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, saying he was now a member of the Nation of Islam and befriending the likes of Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. This was brash and shocking to white America, who Ali had already shocked with his brashness and antics. Back then, sports stars were not supposed to be controversial, especially black sports stars. Ali was ground-breaking: he showed that black athletes – all athletes really – don’t have to conform to expectations by the power brokers in sports.
Muhammad Ali’s career ended on a sad note, his skills diminished by both time and punishment. He was the very definition of an athlete that stayed past their prime. Following retirement, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome, his motor skills and speech eroded considerably. I feared Ali would be an object of sympathy and sadness, but any thoughts of that happening were dispelled by lighting the torch at the 1996 Olympics on Atlanta.
The last 30+ years of his life Ali was as a globe-trotting humanitarian, preaching peace and tolerance, meeting with world leaders and making a difference. He was much in demand and as Parkinson’s ravaged him he spoke less and less; it was his presence alone that motivated people and brought attention to his causes.
Muhammad Ali’s life was exceptional, transcending races and cultures. He was brave, driven by sheer force of will to be the best. He was as warm and funny as he was brash and outspoken.
Ali was the subject of probably hundreds of books; I own more books on him than any other figure. Among my favorites:
Kimg of the World by David Remnick
Facing Ali: 15 Fighters / 15 Stories by Stephen Brant