Muhammad Ali and the Transcendence of Greatness

I have showed my young son archive footage of Muhammad Ali interviews in the past few years to show him that a man can be famous just for talking, much less dominating a sport or business or art. And Ali clearly dominated the art and business of sport while simultaneously mastering the English language and American culture.

He is most certainly in the pantheon of the top 100 most influential Americans, if I had to estimate.

Today I watched a bunch of new interview footage, and it occurred to me why Ali was so very powerful and controversial.

To raise a black man in America to prominence was not especially new. I think that the White power structure was willing, even at the height of Jim Crow, to appreciate talent, even while it sneered downward. Music, dance, or sport — even literature in the case of Frederick Douglass — it was fairly safe to esteem black Americans in that limited way.

But Ali pushed further, with a knowing smile on his face, into forbidden territory: he refused to be anything less than equal, anything less than Great.

Sure, he said “I’m the Greatest,” but that could be idle boasting. The thing is, he truly was Great, in a classical sense. He could dominate the sweet science of boxing and then — Christ, IMMEDIATELY after an epic athletic contest — instantly dominant the subtle artistry of rhetoric. He was physically beautiful and intellectually elite. He challenged all of the stereotypes of humanity — American or not — and exceeded the expectations of all cultures at their most universal.

And then, he went a step too far, and gloriously so. He ignored the White American power structure’s proscription on exceeding the boundaries of your fame and continuing on to say something of Actual Importance. He challenged racism face on, and of course, he was the prime counter example of the ugly brutality of the South. After all, he performed far beyond any standard of Western excellence, and achieved this in the face of not being able to use the same bathrooms as his inferiors.

And he knew it.

And he said it. Out loud. On TV. In multiple countries. Or on multiple planets, if he could have done so.

He committed the unpardonable sin of actual self-esteem against a racist system.

I watched an amazing interview just today where Ali is being interviewed on British television, and he’s explaining his defiance of racism to an English audience whose forebears — let’s be clear — had plenty to do with the state of affairs of how Kentucky worked for men of his ethnicity. And yet he has the audience eating out of his hand as he explains vanquishing Communist nations at the Rome Olympics, and ever-still being denied a hot dog in downtown Louisville. And his laugh is so smooth, so knowing, so beyond such putrescence.

That’s how far above this hideousness Ali flew: he could win the Olympics, be denied a f**king hot dog by low-end mediocrities, and smoothly laugh about it just a few years later.

Because he was the Greatest. And he knew it.

The film footage of protests of the Vietnam War are misleading; compared with college-age opposition to the Iraq War (part 2, Electric Boogaloo) in the 2000s, it was statistically much less significant. Thus, when Ali flew directly, fearlessly into the face of the Vietnam War Machine, slaying the military-industrial complex simultaneously with the racism-social-inequity complex, he was acting with far more courage than we could possibly realize today. That is how confident he was in his own strength and moral resilience. He could face down the entire American system as a single African-American athlete from Kentucky who wasn’t allowed to order a f**king salad or piss where he liked.

Also, what a boxer! He was good at that, too.

The man known as Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali is one of America’s — and indeed humanity’s — greatest figures. He shall not be easily surpassed, even centuries into the future.

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