Muhammad Ali wasn’t just the greatest boxer, he was one of the greatest period
There’s been an outpouring of tributes following Muhammad Ali’s passing. As a sporting icon and a figure from popular culture, this isn’t uncommon. Yet Ali was a boxer, an athlete from a sport that has been equally celebrated and lambasted for its gladiatorial nature. A sport that is unashamedly the hurt business and ignorantly deemed an arena where the fighters are too stupid to realise that they endure pain for our enjoyment. A sport that has seen its biggest stars elevated to the dizzy heights of success only to unceremoniously be brought crashing down when they’re superfluous to requirements and no longer a cash cow for the money men of the sport (who’ve never laced up a pair of gloves let alone thrown a punch themselves). Yes, he was a boxer, but the above didn’t apply to him; he was special. He transcended boxing, sport and even popular culture. He was the greatest but without the hyperbole that such labels often attract. Therefore it’s little wonder his death has been met with a response that is befitting of a legend.
As a boxing fan there’s a lot that could be said of Ali’s ability in the ring but little that hasn’t already been said by others. Indeed, when encouraged by fellow fight fan and Muhammad Ali admirer @davidcdennis to pen this post, this was my concern. Ali’s footwork, hand speed, movement and athleticism remain second to none. His heart, mettle and conditioning in soaking up punches from an incredibly ferocious puncher in George Foreman (who most modern fighters would have ducked in fear of his punching power for the duration of their careers) to claim the W against all odds, spoke volumes of his character in the ring. Moreover, it served as a reflection of his tenacity as a man outside of it. Despite me regularly and repeatedly revisiting Ali’s fights online or reading fight reports as if he fought at the previous weekend rather than decades ago, his boxing prowess isn’t what he stands out for either. Instead, it’s what he represented which is what his legacy is undoubtedly driven by. It’s also why he’s honoured by so many who may never have even seen any of his fights.
Ali represented the struggle of the black diaspora but also Muslims at a time when both minority groups struggled to achieve respect and acceptance in America (arguably they still do). Although this wasn’t from a position of pity for Ali didn’t need anyone’s sympathy. Even as Parkinson’s amplified the juxtaposition between Ali in his later years with the demeanour we once saw of a young, outspoken, athletic man, he always rejected any pathos others may have tried to inject into his story.
Ali was the architect of swagger, slick oration, charisma and sublime intelligence that wasn’t seen in a black boxer let alone a sportsman period. And certainly not on the platform that he occupied. No interviewer could bamboozle him if they tried and he could articulate his argument with a flair and authority that would leave his audience in awe even if not in agreement. In an era where the boxing writing and broadcasting community was dominated by white, middle class men, many of whom would have looked down on a black, southern fighter, Ali turned the equilibrium of their interaction on its head. He was the smartest and most eloquent in any room and during interviews not only did he know it but he exuded it. Though there was something that tempered his confidence in not crossing the fine line into the realm of unpleasant arrogance.
As an instant black icon, Ali gave the diaspora pride and credibility. He was one of the prominent voices of black, Muslim and social consciousness in an era where it meant so much and was so needed. He knew he was a handsome black man and made sure to share it. In doing so, he unashamedly celebrated the black image. This was at a time when subconscious self-loathing was widespread amongst black people as a result of enduring racism and the shadow of slavery and latterly segregation. Ali ignored the memo of the day that being black was to be dirty and inferior and replaced it with his own narrative that black was beautiful; a narrative that has been central to the ongoing healing of the black diaspora. Ali undoubtedly inspired a generation of youth and countered the racism that was rife during his peak via his very being.
The integrity of Ali was unparalleled. He refused to evade conscription during the Vietnam war but even more vociferously refused to go to war. As a Muslim, he cited he was a conscientious objector which was rejected. Nonetheless, he represented a reminder of Islam as a compassionate religion and he continued to do so throughout his life. Again, Ali’s identity was in contention with his time but he was unapologetic for it. Similarly, against a backdrop of inequality and prejudice in America, Ali’s logic in support of his opposition was “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” And he was right as they didn’t have a quarrel with a black, Muslim man either; he could find that without leaving America. While some saw it as unpatriotic at the time, history has judged his opposition more favourably. His actions, which cost him three years of his career with inactivity when his boxing licence was revoked, showed the principled stance that was lost on so many Americans at the time. As a social commentator, Ali was also equally earnest and forthright which compounded his influence in his generation and beyond.
Subsequent to his boxing career, Ali’s humanitarian work and compassion came to the fore. Despite being a quality that might appear to create a dichotomy with boxing, the latter was even apparent during his career and Ali rarely had real venom for his opponents. But more fool those those who thought that would detract from his performance in a fight. There was a contrast between the persona of the brash boxer and the compassionate humanitarian, qualities that weren’t mutually exclusive for Ali.
Muhammad Ali might be remembered as the greatest ever boxer. But his true legacy is of being one of the greatest period.