Muhammad Ali is not with us anymore. This has to take a while to sink in. Someone who has become synonymous with sports entertainment, someone who seemed more daring, more forward, more quoted than almost any human being in the history of mankind. It is difficult to say something about the man that has not already been said, but here I will make my humble attempt.
Muhammad Ali exploded onto my little TV set when I was 9. An infomercial for VHS clips of his fights, quotes, and interviews was on sale. I knew it was someone special, I also knew it was someone terrifying. To see clips of Ali vanquishing his opponents, buoyed by his voiceover yelling his iconic quotes, was intriguing, imposing, and energizing. Fast forward to Will Smith’s Ali film, and I began watching his fights on ESPN classic as a result of the movie. It is cliche to say, that Ali was an inspiration for me in different pursuits of my passion for the sport and art of boxing.
What about the man though? What about him made him so universally loved and respected, even by those who otherwise have no interest in his sport? Some answers are obvious. He is highly entertaining in his old black and white clips, and human marvel that made a brutal, sloppy, and fearsome game look balletic and rhythmic. Even as age and disease deteriorated his physical condition, we refused to accept it. He wasn’t the first to do that, but he was the one who did it on the biggest stages. People born and raised long after Ali was in his youth, still only know him as the fast talking, and even faster moving boxer.
Ali’s image throughout his life seems to cover the entire spectrum of opinion. From a young man, until the later stages of his career, and throughout the rest of his life, he went from a villain who was polarizing at best, to a universally beloved icon, almost a god walking among us mortals. He was well regarded at the beginning, an Olympic gold medalist, known as the “King of Olympic Village” because of his charisma, to someone who irritated the old barber shop boxing commentators. He would get knocked out, the way he carried his hands by his shorts, they said. His punches can’t “juice a grape”, as David Remnick wrote about opinions on (then) Cassius Clay. There is not a chance in any universe that he defeats the monstrous Sonny Liston, people thought.
Outside of the ring, his membership in the Nation of Islam troubled many in America. His brash attitude rubbed many the wrong way during the time. His refusal to enter the draft, citing religious reasons, nearly derailed everything. Then his ring wars seemed to really bring about change in how people viewed him. Taking punishment, throughout the history of boxing, has almost without fail won the recipient fans. Boxers who are elusive, stayed unmarked, had a more difficult time achieving popularity. This has been especially the case with black boxers. Through some combination of Ali’s cleverness, relationship with Howard Cosell, overcoming difficulties with the likes of Frazier, Foreman, Norton, and Chuck Wepner, only to show a shell of his once dominant self against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, he has become the indescribable icon he is today. Of course, with all icons, his life, what he represents, and who he is has been oversimplified, and sanctified. Joe Frazier, who endured much hardship because of Ali’s words, is swept under the rug, as one example.
Ali as the man, historical figure, and symbol will only grow in power. Decades after his career ended, newcomers to boxing imitate his shuffle and body language. An entire documentary has been made simply featuring his quotes. A list of his well known opponents have spoken of their awe of him before, during, and since their fights. Perhaps Ali was just the perfect storm for his era: An athletic freak, faster than fighters 70 pounds lighter, with the improvising skills of a standup comedian meets poet. He came during a strong counterculture era, and whose career we got to see take the full spectrum from promising prospect, to “what if” in the 3 years he was in exile, to his last great fights, to faded champion.
I wanted to leave this with a quote. Again, so many to choose from, so I picked one I had not seen before and brought some good humor:
“I am the astronaut of boxing. Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.”