“Me? Whee!” — Muhammad Ali
He told us he was the greatest.
He rhymed it in poetry, he sang it in song, he declaimed it into microphones, eyes wide and bright with mischief and just this side of crazy. “I am the greatest!” he told us. “I am the greatest of all time!”
Leave it to the aficionados and experts of his brutal sport to determine whether Muhammad Ali, who died Friday night in Scottsdale, Arizona, was the best boxer who ever lived. Leave it to them to measure Ali’s speed and footwork against Joe Louis’ punching power, Mike Tyson’s ferocity or Rocky Marciano’s iron jaw.
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But “best” is not a synonym for “greatest.” To be called — or, as in Ali’s case, to call yourself — the greatest at a thing implies not just the skill and excellence with which you do that thing, but also the impact you have upon your craft and the world beyond. When the legendary comic book artist Jack “King” Kirby died in 1994, writer and artist Frank Miller put it like this: “You mark a great in any field by the fact that everything before them seems outdated when they show up and everything after them reflects their influence.”
That was Ali all over. He told us he was the greatest, but of course, he told us so many things.
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
“I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
“I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder in jail.”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
The only thing faster than his hands was his mouth.
In 1975, when Ali gave a speech at Harvard, someone asked him for a poem. The champ responded as quoted at the top. In so saying, he produced not only the shortest poem in the English language, but also the perfect distillation of himself. Did anyone ever exude such public joy at simply being?
By 1975, most of us were ready to share that joy; Ali was, by then, a known quantity, admired and beloved. But the reception was starkly different when he burst upon the American consciousness 15 years before, still bearing what he would later deride as his “slave name,” Cassius Clay.
Before this, the African-American man who became famous enough to be noticed by white America was obliged to carry himself with studied humility, an affable smile, and the strained dignity that came from knowing you carried millions of Negroes with you and that any slip you made, any transgression you committed, would stain all their lives.
So you were required to be silent, especially about the things that mattered. Joe Louis spent his career saying as little as possible. Jackie Robinson was required to be what he called “a patient black freak” while silently enduring white men’s abuse. There were outliers, yes: Sugar Ray Robinson and Jack Johnson were known for flashy cars and flamboyant lives.
But there had never been anything like Cassius Clay. He wasn’t flashy or flamboyant. He was just loud, a brash and cocky trash talker who cleaved America like a sword. Many white people (and conservative, image-conscious black ones) could not abide him, hated the way he flouted the rules of how Negroes were supposed to behave. They loathed him all the more for how often he was right in what he said.
He said he would beat Sonny Liston and he did.
He said he would shake up the world and he did that, too.
He said he was pretty, and he was even right about that.
And if many white people (and conservative, image-conscious black ones) were appalled by this, some African Americans recognized in him an authentic kind of black manhood never before seen on the American stage. In his loud braggadocio and selling of wolf tickets, he sounded like a black barbershop on a Saturday morning, like old black men on the porch slamming down dominoes, like black boys sinking fadeaways on the playground basketball court as the shadows grow long and the streetlights wink to life. He sounded like he didn’t know or else, didn’t care, that white people were watching. He sounded like it didn’t matter what they might think. And so, he sounded free.
Indeed, Muhammad Ali might have been the first truly free black man in America.
That is to say, he refused the context white America had created for him. Instead, he created his own, created himself, declaring himself a Muslim in 1964, joining the separatist Nation of Islam, renouncing his birth name and declaring that henceforth, he would be known as Muhammad Ali.
Many white people (and conservative, image-conscious black ones) thought it the height of arrogance that this boxer claimed the right to define himself. Sports reporters and the man and woman on the street pointedly refused to use the new name. They continued to refer to him as “Clay.”
Boxer Ernie Terrell was one of them. When he and Ali met in the ring, the champion pummeled him over 15 rounds. “What’s my name?” he taunted. “What’s my name?”
That was in February of 1967. The following month, Ali defeated a man named Zora Folley. It would be his last fight for three years. He had refused induction in the armed forces, citing his status as a Muslim minister and calling himself a conscientious objector. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he famously declared, at a time when the war in Vietnam had split America right down the dinner table and the smell of burning draft cards permeated the air.
The punishment for Ali’s temerity was severe. He was threatened with prison, savaged by public opinion. He was also stripped of his boxing license and of his passport. But they could not strip him of his mouth. Ali traveled the country, speaking out against what was increasingly acknowledged as an unjust war.
Challenged on his position before an audience of mostly white college students, he did not back down. “If I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die right here, fighting you. You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs — and you want me to go somewhere and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me here at home?”
Ali would eventually be vindicated by the Supreme Court and go on to wage epic battles in the ring — “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, “The Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier — but his stand on principle against that war with his livelihood and freedom at stake, remains his most courageous fight and, indeed, one of the most courageous fights in sports history.
Like most athletes, Ali overstayed his talents. His last fight was a loss to Trevor Berbick in 1981 when he was almost 40. He left boxing as the only man ever to win the heavyweight crown three times, a distinction he still holds.
The world didn’t see much of Ali again until 1996, when he lit the flame for the Atlanta Olympics. He was a shocking sight. The lithe young boxer who had won gold in the 1960 Olympics had grown puffy with age and his body shook with the tremors of Parkinson’s disease. It was a moment both inspiring and also, ineffably sad.
Whenever you saw him in the years after that, you could not help be struck by how much the dreaded neurological disease had taken from him. The famously mobile face had become a rigid mask. The famously brash voice had grown silent. But there was also a kind of grace in the loss. Watching him in the imposed stillness of his affliction, with the heated days of the 1960s long behind, it was possible to finally understand something not easily understood before:
Namely, that Ali was great but also, and perhaps more importantly, he was good.
People seemed to recognize this at some fundamental, instinctive level. They flocked to him wherever he went. Every color, every tribe, every faith, every nation, they all wanted to be close to him. The brash black boy from Louisville had made himself a boxer, then made himself a champion and then, in his declining years, made himself something even larger than that.
He traveled into poor and forgotten corners of the world as a UN Messenger of Peace. He brought joy to some sick child under the auspices of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He went to the White House to accept the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. And sometimes, you would see him just walking among the people, a silent, inscrutable bear of a man in the center of an adoring crowd, eyes sparkling as he made a handkerchief disappear or produced a coin from the ear of some delighted child.
Now, there goes Muhammad Ali into glory.
“Rumble, young man, rumble.” he cried.
“If you ever dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize,” he warned.
“I should be a postage stamp. That’s the only way I’ll ever get licked,” he bragged.
And famously, he told us “I am the greatest.”
As an entire world pauses to mourn his passing, one thing is abundantly clear. He was right.