When it comes to most public figures, there’s often a good dose of hyperbole used to describe them. But not with Muhammad Ali.
He was the greatest.
Ali first stated that fact in 1964, after defeating then-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in a technical knockout. At the time, he boasted that he shook up the world, displaying a confidence that belied his young age (22 years old).
Fifty-two years later, on Friday, June 3, 2016, Ali shook up the world once more when he passed on from this world to the next.
And so our lives are a little bleaker, a little drearier, having lost an icon whose work transcended the world of sports. Yes, Ali was the greatest and much of it had nothing to do with boxing. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.
It was boxing that launched his career when Ali – then known by his birth name of Cassius Clay – took the world by storm thanks to his larger-than-life personality that was a perfect fit for television which was quickly growing in popularity and reach. His interviews were the stuff of legend, where he often boldly proclaimed he was the best. Then he would back up that talk in the ring with a dazzling display of grace and power that had never been seen before and hasn’t been seen since.
He was at once a butterfly and a bee, a perfect metaphor for the rhythm and style he brought to all that he did.
Ali was not only comfortable in his own skin, he was confident in who he was, once saying, “I don’t have to be who you want me to be; I’m free to be who I want.”
For many, he was the voice of reason, supporting the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s, opposing war and serving as a champion for world peace. He was far from perfect both inside and outside the ring, at times controversial and polarizing during an era when the country and the world were similarly in a precarious position.
Despite his faults, he was emblematic of our connection to one another, regardless of our perceived differences. His trip to Kinshasha, Zaire, in 1974, to battle George Foreman in the Rumble in the Jungle demonstrated this simply and beautifully. In the streets and in the stadium, they chanted, over and over and over again: Ali Bomaye!
Ali and the Africans may have been from two separate continents, but they were one and the same. A similar bond was forged with him and the people of Manila a year later when Ali squared off against Joe Frazier, a bout he won by technical knockout.
In later years, Ali was quieted by Parkinson’s disease, which some attribute to the punishment he took during his career as a boxer. Though he had lost his voice, he still maintained a power and presence on the world stage that was unparalleled.
In a 2013 interview with Esquire, filmmaker Bill Siegel, who directed “The Trials of Muhammad Ali”, spoke about the film’s subject. “As I got older I saw Ali’s story as a really rare prism by which to look at ourselves,” Siegel said. “I think of that era now as kind of our national adolescence: kicking and screaming, righteous, defiant, disrespecting our elders… and sometimes being right. He really represented that in a moral, principled, and, really a lovely way. I don’t think he set out to be political. I think he set out to be moral. And yeah, that means a lot, because we’re still finding ourselves.”
So in Ali’s death, we’re left to look at not only what he brought to this world, but how he did it. Like boxing, he attacked life with a passion, intensity and love, all while content with the knowledge of who he was. He boldly proclaimed he was the greatest. And then he proved it.
Words of an Icon: “Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” – Muhammad Ali