There may be 6 or 7 people on Earth who don’t know that name … and that’s a liberal estimate. Muhammad Ali died last Friday. (I’d ask for a moment of silence, but silence and Muhammad Ali didn’t exactly go together.) Ali was a true heavyweight, and I’m not talkin’ about boxing. Life was his sport, and he excelled at it. Referring to his prowess in the ring, Ali used to say he was the greatest of all time. But his greatness wasn’t bound by the ropes, or his indescribable talent, or how hard he trained … not even if he won or lost. Ali was great because of his humanity, which is interesting because his chosen profession — boxing — has often been characterized as inhumane.
My first memories of this man were as a kid. My dad — who at the time continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay, as did the media — would rant about Ali’s conscientious objection to the war in Viet Nam and refusal to submit to the draft. I was way too young to know what was goin’ on. I didn’t know what the “draft” was, or where Viet Nam was, or why my Father wouldn’t call Ali by his chosen name. I mean, when he talked about John Wayne he didn’t call him Marion Morrison. Over the last 50 years, though, I figured out who my father is. Think Carlos Zambrano, only more so. I have to cut him some slack on this issue, though, cuz I also learned about the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammad whom Ali followed, and whose teachings included his claim that “the white man is the devil.” Men aren’t perfect. That includes Ali, and my dad.
I watched Muhammad Ali box. A lot. Hey, man cannot live by Cubs games alone (although the missus would tell you that I try pretty friggin’ hard). I didn’t see guys like Joe Louis or Jack Dempsey, but still, I have to think that Ali probably was the greatest. Like most everyone, I also heard him speak. It was pretty much unavoidable, cuz if he wasn’t reciting his own poetry about his next bout — which were a helluva lot more frequent than they are today — he was being interviewed by David Frost or Johnny Carson or William F. Buckley, or somebody else who mistakenly thought he could verbally spar with this guy who barely graduated high school. Ali was fluent in the languages of showmanship and principle which drew people to him. It was like Rizzo walkin’ into Murphy’s after a game, times a thousand. Complete pandemonium.
That’s why it’s been an uninterrupted, 24-hour-a-day avalanche of Muhammad Ali since Friday. He was, in a word, unforgettable. He was also charming and witty and loved tellin’ everyone how good lookin’ he was. He was fearless, too; taunting his opponents by dangling his arms at his sides, daring guys who could literally kill someone with their fists to try and hit him. And he was incredibly smart — rope-a-doping George Foreman into exhaustion and winning a match he was supposed to get pummeled in. But boxing wasn’t Ali. That was just something he did. People may have discovered him through the sport, but sayin’ Ali was a boxer is like sayin’ Einstein was a patent clerk. Nothing and nobody defined him. Instead, he defined everything around him, including the biggest, badass of them all, the Federal Government. Standing toe-to-toe with Uncle Sam, while sacrificing his title and the best years of his boxing career, Ali remained true to his religious beliefs, and the government ended up with a black eye.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t perfect, but he was gracious. He was a fighter, but a man of peace. His passing diminishes the whole of the human race, which saddens me, especially when I pull my nose outta the sports pages long enough to see the state the world is in, knowing that we all could use more Muhammad Ali’s.