Boxing was only a small part of what made the late Ali so special.
What makes a great athlete? How do you define the greatest?
Muhammad Ali isn’t the best boxer who ever lived. (Boxing guru Bert Sugar ranked him No. 7.) He’s not the athlete who brought the most immediate social change. (Jackie Robinson has him there.) And when ESPN released its much-publicized, imporant list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th century, Ali was third, behind Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth.
But there are 23 definitions of the word “great” in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are more than 135 synonyms. It’s a word that can be shaped and shifted into what you want it to be. Through all the meanings and interpretations, one name in sports best encapsulates the abstraction: Muhammad Ali is the greatest athlete in history. Full stop.
This is not a knee-jerk reaction of lionizing a man in his passing as our culture is wont to do. It’s the rightful paean to the most magnetic, charismatic, important, seductive, intelligent, calculating, pioneering, caring, controversial, worldly, self-aware athletic great the world has ever seen. He was so many things to so many people. Whatever you wanted or needed Muhammad Ali to be, he could fill that role. His greatness transcended sport.
The man of many nicknames – the Louisville Lip may have been his first – came onto the scene as a gold-medal winning Olympian named Cassius Clay at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome. Four years later, he became the surprise heavyweight champion of the world and took about 24 hours to become the most controversial figure in sports when, with Malcolm X at his side, he announced he’d converted to Islam and was rejecting his slave name, hereby going as Cassius X until Elijiah Muhammad would bestow a name upon him. In a rare move, Muhammad would give Cassius X a full name – one of the most powerful in Islam. It was such a slight to Malcolm X, who still hadn’t been bestowed his own title despite his years of service, that he would fall out with the group. Ali would later says turning his back on Malcolm X was his greatest regret.)
More fights followed and the hype came along too. Ali and Howard Cosell became like a vaudeville act for the sports set, with the sportscaster playing straight man to Ali’s loquacious quote machine. They both helped put each other into a different stratosphere of fame.
As the renown grew, so did the controversy. Ali rejected the Vietnam War on religious grounds and was banned for boxing from three years while he fought it out in the courts. His first major comeback fight against Joe Frazier was the most-anticipated sporting event of the 20th century and lived up to the billing, as did his two other bouts with the man who stood by his side during those legal troubles. It’s a relationship that was deeply fractured when Ali reduced Frazier by calling him an Uncle Tom and a gorilla, a confusing dichotomy for the man who fought so hard for civil rights.
Ali’s greatest bout was perhaps the Rumble in the Jungle, which would be a title bout against the young George Foreman, who took the belt in the infamous “Down goes Frazier!” fight of 1973. An overmatched Ali employed his rope-a-dope strategy to exhaust the thundering Foreman. The rigors of that battle and many future ones (he held on too long and fought 10 fights after his third bout with Fraizer – the Thrilla in Manila – in 1975) are thought to have contributed to his Parkinson’s disease. It was the classic case of a boxer not knowing when to hang up the gloves. After years of hinting at retirement, he stopped for good in 1980.
It did nothing to diminish his celebrity or impact. Up until the turn of the century, Ali was likely the most famous man in the world and had been for three decades. Norman Mailer and George Plimpton wrote books about him. Frank Sinatra took pictures at his fights. He had it all. You either loved him or hated him. He was either beloved or divisive. There was no middle ground. Everyone had an opinion about Muhammad Ali. Yet even if you initially didn’t like what Ali stood for, he deserved, and eventually earned, your respect anyway. Belief in the strength of your convictions will do that.
While the bluster and rhymes could give the impression that Ali was some sort of charlatan, he was anything but. Yes, he talked and talked (and talked) but he also walked and walked (and walked). Muhammad Ali stood for what he believed. Imagine winning the greatest prize in sports and then announcing a decision that he knew would be unpopular with people of all races, including his own. It would have been far easier to dismiss his beliefs, get a cushy military job for a bit and retain his heavyweight title rather than facing prison and being banned from the sport he loved for three years of his prime. Ali evidently never even considered the former path. Michael Jordan didn’t want to endorse a politician because he wanted to sell sneakers. Ali stayed true to his faith at great cost.
So of course he could stand up and take a beating in the ring from George Foreman. When you showed as much courage and conviction as Muhammad Ali did in fighting for the things he believed, throwing and taking a few punches barely registers as brave.
The man Ali became was foreshadowed in the fighter he started out as. He was brash. He didn’t conform to anyone’s idea of what he should be. And he was always evolving, both in the ring and out, from the young gold-medal winner who showed more trust than activism in the civil rights battle, to the man who joined the Nation of Islam, to the older man who later dismissed the militant beliefs of Elijah Muhammad and gave a compassionate embrace to all man.
No less a civil rights leader as Arthur Ashe seemed to be in awe of Ali’s power to unite.
“Ali didn’t just change the image that African Americans have of themselves,” Ashe said. “He opened the eyes of a lot of white people to the potential of African Americans; who we are and what we can be.”
At his peak, Ali was the most famous man in the world, beloved worldwide if divisive in his home country. Film of him training in Zaire before the Rumble in the Jungle, as children ran alongside him, is one of the most indelible images of the power of an athlete. Ali was truly the first global sportsman, able to bridge a gap of nationality, language and race long before television, the internet, marketing and globalization allowed athletes to do so with ease.
If he was still controversial, the years, and his poor health, softened his image. Then, in 1996, Ali was the surprise final torchbearer at the Atlanta Olympics. Tears streamed down the faces of people in attendance and watching at home. Here was Muhammad Ali, coming full circle from the teenaged Olympic hero, Cassius Clay, of the Rome Games 36 years before. Through all the twists and turns of his career, Ali was an American hero once more.
His final years were heartbreaking, as Parkinson’s robbed him of his ability to both float and sting, but not of the mental faculties that made him the best showman sports has ever seen and its greatest ambassador. In interviews, a mischievous look would flicker in his eyes and you’d know the old Ali was there.
No one has ever had a sporting life like Muhammad Ali, the original and eternal Greatest of All Time.