The passing of Muhammad Ali comes during a 2016 that has seen the loss of a great number of notable Americans. While many seemed sudden, it’s almost if we had been watching Ali slowly fade away from us for years.
Over most of the last decade of his life Ali’s voice, one of the most recognized in the world, had been all but silenced by Parkinson’s disease. It proved to be one of the few opponents he could not best.
I never saw Ali box. His last fight came in 1981 when I was just six years old, but his presence was constant. The Ali I saw was beloved by America, a champion living as both celebrity and ambassador to the world.
But that was not always the case.
The quiet, fragile man that died this past Friday is the Ali that America wants us to remember, but he is not the one that we cannot forget.
Ali is indelible not just because he fought, but for how he fought, whom he fought, and why he fought.
As a boxer, he was unlike any heavyweight champion before or since. He was a combination of the artistry of Sugar Ray Robinson, the machismo of Jack Johnson, the defensive ability of Floyd Mayweather, along with a speed, savvy, and hubris uniquely his own.
He took on the best and beat them all, from Sonny Liston, to Joe Frazier, to George Foreman.
Muhammad Ali was the evolutionary and revolutionary modern black athlete. He was sound and fury signifying the frustration of a people.
Jackie Robinson retired in 1957; Cassius Clay won Olympic gold in 1960. Though the two may be the most important athletes in the history of sport, they were of different eras and differing approaches.
Where Robinson’s quiet demeanor belied his fierce competitiveness and deeply held convictions, Ali was open, defiant, and unapologetic in laying out all that he was for us to see.
Ali was a man of contradictions. A separatist Black Muslim as a young man, his most trusted advisors in the ring were white men. He held a strict moral code, but was known for his penchant for the company of women. His IQ was listed as 78, but he often knew more than he let on.
However, he was consistent in his support of oppressed people, most notably his own, throughout the world. In 1967, at the age of just 25 years old, he refused induction into the U.S. Armed Forces as a conscientious objector based on his religious beliefs. In doing so he forfeited his championship, the prime of his career, and millions of dollars. But he would not forfeit his humanity or his dignity.
For four years he fought the United States for his right not to fight. And he won that one too, as the Supreme Court overturned his conviction just as many of his matches were scored…by unanimous decision.
The epic trilogy with Frazier would follow, with the “Rumble in the Jungle” against Foreman in between. His final hurrah coming here, in New Orleans, as he defeated Leon Spinks and claimed the heavyweight championship for a third time.
It should have ended there, but we know what followed. The painful losses to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. The hands no longer swift, the feet no longer light.
But his spirit was a strong as ever. Ali lent his name and his voice to causes the world over. Even in his twilight the name Muhammad Ali resonated. The man that had been derided as a loudmouth, a bigot, and un-American had become one of the most beloved figures the world has known.
I still remember the chills I felt as Ali, his hands trembling, held the Olympic torch high into the night sky before lighting the flame at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. The roar of the crowd was that of respect for a man who was still battling, still standing.
Athletes are rarely true heroes, but Ali fit the definition. He wasn’t a hero because he was perfect. He was a hero because he overcame his imperfections to do for others. He was a hero because he spoke for the voiceless and he fought for the weak. He was a hero because he lived his life, his way, asking not for our permission or for our approval.
As Ossie Davis said of Malcolm X, the man credited with bringing Ali to Islam, the same could be said of Ali. “And we will know him then for what he was and is – a prince – our own shining black prince – who didn’t hesitate to die, because he loved us so.”
He was simply, “The Greatest” and we all wish we had one more opportunity to hear him tell us so.