Last weekend, there was talk that Muhammad Ali’s health was quickly fading. The man is the definition of an icon: a great in his chosen profession with a likability and an authenticity that attracted the world. You didn’t have to be a Muslim to pause when we thought Ali was about to expire, but of course I noticed that within my own ranks, there was that cold shiver; like having a grandparent or parent pass who you know was nearing the end but it doesn’t really take away the sting of it.
I don’t know if it’s a practice they still use, but in Malcolm’s day the Nation would preach for a minimalistic funeral. If you didn’t express your gratitude for someone when they were living, well, it’s too late now. That’s a hard line to take if you’re grieving, but I have to admit at least philosophically I always admired that logic. Life is short, and it’s fleeting, and none of us are guaranteed any tomorrows or any second chances to tell someone we care for them or love them or admire them. So do it now, do it before it’s too late.
So with that prologue, here are a few of the infinite reasons I admire ‘the Greatest’.
- He was on both sides of the Vengeance Scale. – which was a testament to his humanity. When he first converted to Islam and he had a fight with Floyd Patterson, Patterson refused to take the high road and respect their differences; calling him ‘Cassius Clay’ in every interview. HUGE MISTAKE. The in his prime Champ was widely believed to toy with Patterson throughout the fight; refusing to knock him out so he could keep punishing him. ‘What’s my name? WHAP!’ But Ali was on the other side of it too when he resorted to calling Joe Frazier a gorilla and an Uncle Tom. Even if it was for show, it set Smokin’ Joe off something fierce; he lent Ali money when he couldn’t fight, now he was an Uncle Tom? Even though Frazier said the right things before he died, I think he held that grudge over Ali into his grave. Just my opinion.
- Pop culture icon. – At different points, he was mentored by Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. He was one of those once in a generation guys who made being ‘the Heavyweight Champion of the World’ the coolest title in sports. He had a famous photo op with the Beatles at the beginning of BeatleMania. He won an Olympic Gold Medal. He had an OK feature film but more than one great documentary made about him. He has a star on the Walk of Fame (but it’s posted on the wall because ‘no one should walk on the name ‘Muhammad’). He fought Superman in the comics!!!! He’s beloved by the Hip Hop Nation, athletes, entertainers, hippies, Muslims…the vast majority of whom at best only saw him fight well past his prime. I could keep going but the point has been made.
- Vilified in his prime. – When we get on Jordan or LeBron’s case for not being more political, I always chuckle a little. Ali was very much like Dr. King or Malcolm or any number of ‘beloved’ figures now; part of the love/respect comes from taking a unpopular stand back in the day, but in the present we like to gloss over the toll it takes to be ‘that guy/girl’ who’s willing to look the lynch mob in the eye and pay the price (in Ali’s case, being stripped of the Heavyweight Title and a few years in the prime of his career). I just don’t see any superstar athlete from here on out taking that kind of stand; their ‘careers’ are short enough as it is.
I could go on forever as you know, but the best thing to say is the other thing you already know: so many of us admire him and try to take parts of his style and image and drive and make it our own, but none of us can ever hold his jock.
In your debt forever Champ.