He died without famous last words, without a selfie video, without a single tweet. The man we knew as the Greatest hadn’t been heard by the public in decades. If anything speaks to the enormity of Muhammad Ali, it is the fact that he was bigger in silence than the rest of the screaming world he left behind.
Born, fittingly, during a World War in 1942, Cassius Clay grew up in the segregated South of Louisville, Ky., the son of a sign painter and a domestic worker. He boxed professionally for 21 years and suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 32. The battle against his own body was longer and tougher than any he fought against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier or George Foreman.
Ultimately, Friday night, Ali went down for a final blessed count at age 74. It is much too young. And yet, he filled his given years like few men before him.
Let there be no argument. The man who just died was the most famous face on Earth. I contend he still is. Name a rock star, athlete or politician whose visage is instantly as recognizable in a New York boardroom, an African village or a Bedouin tent. We’ll save you time. There is no one. And remember, Ali achieved such worldwide fame without computers, without Internet, without DVRs or YouTube.
He did it through the magnificence of his boxing, the magnitude of his personality, and the causes he championed at a time when sitting down was more common than standing up.
He also did it through ego. Not the ego we have come to know as blank ravings of empty self-importance, but ego born from a place of true belief that he could do things others could not. Norman Mailer famously linked this word with Ali, and penned an article that likened being the heavyweight champion to “being the big toe of God. You have nothing to measure yourself against.”
Little wonder that when Ali was asked, after first winning the heavyweight crown, how long he expected to be champion, he answered that the man who would defeat him hadn’t been born yet.
He also declared, upon felling Liston in 1964, “I am the greatest! I can’t be beat!”
Of course, neither statement was wholly true. Ali would lose five times in his pro career, to men who had been born when Liston hit the canvas. But back then, you sensed that Ali honestly believed in his own fated invincibility, and he planned to make good on it.
I’ve been thinking of the proper way to put his giant-sized life into a few dozen newspaper inches, and while it is likely a doomed task, the best approach might be to imagine speaking to a child who hadn’t heard of this man (hard as that is to imagine). What made him so special? So unique? So mourned today by presidents and peasants alike?
I will use the word that keeps coming to my mind. He was incredibly, uniquely and entirely…
One of a kind
Look, there were boxers before Muhammad Ali and boxers after. Entertainers preceded and followed him, as did men of principle, good talkers and softhearted champions.
But before Ali, those things had not been rolled into a single piece of boxing dough. Fighters were either withdrawn, mean or awkward. They weren’t known for self-adulation and certainly not for taking stands. Ali began talking about himself not long after he turned pro in 1960 with a mischievous truculence that made people chuckle or curse.
“Float like a butterfly sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” That may be his most famous quote and it was certainly the kind of thing you didn’t hear from boxers in the 1960s. Nor did you hear rhyming predictions like this one in the buildup to a Liston fight:
“If he keeps talking about me, I’ll get him in three
If that don’t do, he’ll fall in two
If he run, he’ll go in one
If he don’t want to fight
He should keep himself home that night.”
Who said things like that? Nobody. Joe Namath earned nationwide acclaim — and scorn — simply by saying he’d “guarantee” his New York Jets would win a Super Bowl. That was 1969, already three years after Ali had declared, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong” in refusing to fight in the Vietnam War due to religious reasons.
That, by the way, is what separates an Ali from a Namath or other athletes who were famous for cocky sentences.
And what began to separate Ali from every athlete who came before him — or after.
He missed his prime
Remember, this man was arrested, stripped of his title and shelved from boxing for nearly four years because of his conscientious objection. For refusal to fight in the war. It ultimately took a Supreme Court decision to vindicate him.
Few athletes (some World War II vets being the exception) can point to such a forced absence at the height of their powers. Ali was benched from the fight game from age 25 until nearly 29. It’s hard to argue those are not any athlete’s best years.
Yet all that Ali did with boxing came before and after that prime. What other legendary athlete can make that claim? Yes, Michael Jordan walked away from basketball to try baseball, but he was already 30 and missed less than two seasons. Who knows how many more than 56 wins Ali might have amassed had he been fighting during those prime years?
But his absence was less significant than its cause. And this is what made Ali stand out. High-profile athletes rarely took such stances and certainly not with such consequences. It was a mark of Ali’s sense of principle and perspective (he famously claimed that the Vietnamese never called him the N-word, never put dogs on him, never lynched him, etc.) that while many Americans — and understandably, Vietnam vets who did go and fight — reviled him during those years, most have come around on him in time. I believe it is because he never wavered. He took his punishment. And he showed, in his later years, that his anti-Vietnam stance wasn’t a singular moment. He did things on principle for decades. He stood up for poor people. He was a civil rights advocate and champion. He gave a voice to young African-Americans in the 1960s and a hero to their children in all the years that followed. He also raised tens of millions to fight disease.
When Ali finally did return to the ring (in 1970), he wasn’t the same fighter. Not as rocket fast. Not as untouchable. Even so, most of his most famous fights came during his second act: his first defeat, by Joe Frazier (dubbed “The Fight of the Century”), his rematch and victory, and their third fight, “The Thrilla In Manila,” which Ali also won, as well as the “Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman and the loss to and subsequent vindication against Ken Norton.
When he finally retired, in 1981, after a defeat by Trevor Berbick, Ali was 39. He didn’t come back years later for money. He didn’t play with bopping in and out of retirement. He was finished with fighting.
And then his biggest fight began.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s less than three years later. There is no direct proof that boxing caused this, and no proof that it did not. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. It was cruel enough that the man known for such elegant movement of his body and his mouth would slowly be robbed of both.
Over the years, Ali became a figurehead. He appeared here and there, rarely speaking. He showed up in locker rooms to shadow-box a few punches and motivate a team. He even did this once with the Fab Five, Michigan’s basketball team, which borrowed his phrase “Shock the world” as a rallying cry.
His most beloved cameo came at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch. Trembling, moving slowly, he ignited the flame and brought people to tears.
That’s something else highly original about Ali. He was a symbol for those who needed to overcome great odds. A push for those who needed a boost in self-belief. In his fighting years, it was common to see hundreds of young people following Ali like a pied piper, in America, in Africa, in Asia. They would call his name, wave their fists and smile. The word “Ali!” became a language in itself.
It speaks well for Ali that his quotes, when you read them, are hardly contained to sports references or boxing nuances. Consider a few:
- “It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you down. It’s the pebble in your shoe.”
- “Go to college, stay in school, If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”
- “Impossible is just a 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.”
These are not X and O statements. They are the verbiage of a thinking man who was once deemed too unintelligent for the Army (based on an IQ test).
It wasn’t the first time Muhammad Ali was underestimated. And in his death, he should not be overestimated, either. He wasn’t a perfect man; he was unfaithful to wives and sometimes cruel to opponents. And no, even his boxing record wasn’t the best. Floyd Mayweather, 49-0, for example, far exceeds him.
But Mayweather will never come close to the reach of Ali, despite his big-mouthed self-celebration, because Mayweather typifies the world we live in today, where telling everyone you are the best has become old and empty, especially when you prove it not by standing up for things, but by squatting down in your own luxury.
Ali never did that. I don’t know how much money he earned in his life, and it was rarely mentioned because he never made money his purpose. He had a heart of a champion, but it was bigger than his sport, as witnessed by one famous anecdote, about a boy with leukemia who came to see Ali train late in the champion’s career. Ali was kind to him. A few weeks later, the boy’s father called to say the child was dying. Ali broke his camp to pay a hospital visit.
In the room, Ali told the boy that they were both going to win their battles, that he would beat Foreman, and the boy would beat cancer.
“No,” the boy reportedly said, “I’m going to meet God. And I will tell him that I know you.”
That’s what so many of us are doing today, telling one another we knew him, or we were impressed by him, or we admired him, or we will miss him. This, young people, is what it means to be deservedly famous: when others speak about you glowing, and you haven’t spoken about yourself in decades.
Mark the calendar. A cold wind has blown. We have lost the quintessential athlete of the 20th Century, a man who, in every way, was an original. And if his silent death resonated around the world, his vocal life resonated even more. It will for a long time.