Muhammad Ali: A Man First, a Boxer Second
Ali just kept talking so the world would have its own playlist when he could no longer express himself properly with words…
Saying goodbye to someone like Muhammad Ali is difficult; accepting that he is gone is nearly impossible. Boxing becomes secondary when one tries to measure what Ali meant to the world. When the odds were against him and all blacks, Ali took courageous stances. When others stayed silent, Ali spoke up. When pressured to retract or apologize, Ali never wavered from his stance. He was defiant, brash, and at times affectionate, funny, supremely skilled in the ring, and always, always understood what he meant to people outside of it.
In any era, that awareness and acceptance is so rare.
Boxing is a cruel sport, and Ali psychologically gutted opponents. Most notably Joe Frazier, but other lesser known fighters felt his wrath. He bullied and whipped them with words. It was sad and cruel and unforgivable. No one deserved that treatment, especially a man as proud as Joe Frazier, as he was forced to fight a mental game that he couldn’t win. To his death, some never forgave Ali. Others moved on.
Possibly his greatest accomplishment, Ali gave a voice to millions of blacks and whites who didn’t have one. Ali could have easily settled and accepted his role as a boxer, but instead he made sacrifices that few would have even considered. Even as Ali talked a good game, he had the conviction to back it up outside the ring. Why he is beloved today has little to do with what he accomplished in the ring. The casual fan embraced him; the boxing purist revered him. After his career — as he suffered from Parkinson’s — Ali tirelessly fought for peace and never, ever turned anyone away. Every young kid who approached him left with a smile. Every fan left with an unforgettable story.
If Ali divided the masses when he was coming up, he unified them later on.
Watch any boxer today and there lay remnants of Ali — the supreme confidence, the feints, the lateral movement. In the face of every young boxer, there’s a piece of Ali. Over the past decade, Ali flitted in and out of the sports pages, but his condition made it nearly impossible for him to engage in any significant way. It represented the sad irony of a man who was once so in tune with himself and his voice that he had to reinvent himself without one. Sadly, others had to speak for him. There was no Bundini Brown, his longtime sidekick, to egg him on. No more “Rumble, Young man, Rumble.” No, this version of Ali staggered out of the gate — the beautiful mind and speed of a young Cassius Clay had been irrevocably replaced by a man who ended the sport too late, caught in the crosshairs of the sport’s exploiters and the need to close out on his own terms.
Still, even in his most difficult moments, Ali communicated through his eyes, his warm smile.
The last stanza of his life was difficult to watch, even for his staunchest critics. Ali was silenced, but instead of becoming merely a sympathetic figure, somehow all of the poetic verses, hyperbole, and playfulness from his early years kept his voice alive. In a way, it was almost as if Ali knew the inevitable day would come, and he just kept talking so the world would have its own playlist when he could no longer express himself properly with words.
But isn’t that what happens to our heroes. They stay around too long because they can. Ali was different; he stood for something more. For so many of the great fighters of any generation, boxing dictated their lives; however, boxing never dictated Ali’s movements and actions. He was always a man first, a boxer, second. All the things that he did mattered in some way, whether they were noble or cruel or impulsive or courageous.
And now that he’s gone, only one thing is for sure — we will never, ever see the likes of him again.
Author: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello
Author: Hands of Stone: The Life and Legend of Roberto Duran
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