Everybody my age can do the Ali Shuffle. It’s just a lot slower now. We can quote “Float Like A Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee.” We can, probably, tell you where we were or how we felt when we learned Muhammad Ali’s fate in the Fight of the Century, the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manila.
We do our comic imitations of the Rope-a-Dope or grow sad when we think of how all the pleasure Ali gave us probably led to the Parkinson’s disease that finally killed him late Friday at 74, although that grim malady had already silenced his public voice for nearly 30 years.
What we cannot do — but perhaps wish we could — is explain to those who did not live through the heart of Ali’s 20-year era that none of this is our central memory of the man or even a small portion of the weight he carries in our memories. He was one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century and one of the most charming, funny and mischievous entertainers. Yet all that was the least of him — merely the platform for the larger man.
Many will say, accurately, that no athlete since Ali has remotely approached his fame or force on the world stage. None has been remotely as beloved on as many continents by hundreds of millions who barely had any other common link except “Ali.” But it is the source of that fame and affection that speaks so well, not just of Ali but perhaps, a bit, of the rest of us as well — in whom we choose to raise high. Ali is proof that deep conviction, explained eloquently under duress, resonates around the world, even among those who do not entirely agree — in fact, even among many who strongly disagree.
In the late 1960s, many admired Ali when he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and refused to be drafted, citing his Nation of Islam religious beliefs. And many hated him, too. Otherwise, his actions — just one athlete’s decisions — could not have had such symbolic power. Arrested, found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight title in 1967, he did not fight for nearly four years during his boxing peak. Finally, the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
Then a marvelous and, at the time, almost passing strange thing happened. To the degree that the world ever agrees to stop screaming and find a locus of consensus, a decent common ground, it did so on Muhammad Ali. He stood by his beliefs, which qualified as eccentric, almost alien to many, and took every form of punishment that the laws of his country demanded. He paid the price for his beliefs, right up to the Supreme Court, while never ceasing to speak out, especially against racial injustice.
To a degree that may be hard to understand today, even those who disagreed with Ali’s views or did not grasp, much less sympathize with, his religion acknowledged that he was a man who had acted with honor, not out of self-interest. He was not welcomed back to the ring; he was swept into it with joy.
As Ali is eulogized, all will agree that, for years, he was probably the most recognized man in the world and perhaps the most widely loved. It may be noted less often that what he did then in 1967 was equivalent to a current athlete — who combined the accomplishments and fame of Peyton Manning, LeBron James and Derek Jeter — denouncing the country’s entire military policy, performing an act of civil disobedience to protest it and basing his stand on a set of beliefs that few Americans grasped. And within five years being celebrated as either vindicated in his views or entitled to them.
History includes too much fury to be reasonable in real time. And some of what Ali believed about religion, politics and race in the late 1960s as part of being a committed Black Muslim seemed inadequate or wrong to him within a decade. That’s probably inevitable. Those at the edge of change run the risk of being its victims. What distinguished Ali was not the correctness, with hindsight, of specific beliefs, some of which changed, but his nonnegotiable insistence that nothing would stop him from defining himself — in his entirety. And he made many of those self-definitions, sometimes it seemed for the sake of defiance or attention itself, from ages 22 to 25.
For years, in an era of constant upheaval, Ali was a walking illustration of the difficulty and importance of defending basic American constitutional rights — to freedom of speech and religion — not because he could be adorable, funny and “The Greatest” but because his beliefs were, at times, so extreme that he ultimately changed them and so noxious to the majority that many loathed him.
Ali was eventually revered around the world not because he got the right answers to the hardest questions but because, when he could have opted for sports fame and riches, he chose to tackle such issues. He insisted on facing those questions with soul-deep sincerity, then following where his decisions led.
In all contexts but one, the best athletes who have come after Ali, from Michael Jordan to Tiger Woods to Tom Brady to whomever you would name, seem worthy of their accolades. Yet compared with Ali — and only in that light — they suddenly shrink. Jordan seems like a sneaker salesman, Woods a golf obsessive and Brady a guy whose big stand-on-principle is that you can’t absolutely prove he deflated a football.
Everyone has his own Muhammad Ali. We’re all entitled. The Greatest of All Time was that big.
Every part of him was not a character for the world stage, though he adored that role and was a glutton for adoration. He had a full adult supply of faults, especially endless psychological cruelty against his opponents, like Joe Frazier, whom he mocked at a deeply personal level that went far beyond any normal concept of gamesmanship. In contrast to that mean streak, those who knew him personally often recalled his lightning quick humor, affection and acts of spontaneous generosity or compassion.
My version of Ali was and always will be the powerful hero of my youth, seen from an enormous distance. But irony seldom sleeps. Years later, near the end of his career, I met him. I covered one of his three brutal fights with Ken Norton. I became friends with his trainer, Angelo Dundee, who also trained Sugar Ray Leonard. And one day, for a feature story, I sought out Ali in the furthest place I could find from a boxing ring — him signing books at a Washington department store.
We got stuck between floors in a crowded elevator for more than 10 minutes. Ali couldn’t stop talking — not his usual banter, just a man trapped in an elevator and clearly alarmed, maybe even scared, though not at any danger since there wasn’t any but at the loss of control. When a figure looms as large in his time as Ali, you can forget that, of course, he is “just a man.” That he is merely one of us makes his deeds, his uniqueness and his strength in his convictions all the more remarkable.
When we were saved from the elevator, Ali took his place at a table to sign those books. Beside him sat an empty chair. Eventually a very tall, very beautiful woman came through the line. She got the seat.
“Why her, champ?” I could hear Ali’s cornerman Bundini Brown say.
“I admire her reach,” Ali said.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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