Muhammad Ali, the legend of all sports legends, is gone. His quiet, excruciating, decades-long descent into Parkinson’s disease is over. If there is a champions’ wing in heaven, may he stand peacefully in the middle of it, arms raised, and speak with audacity and wit once more, this time about a life well lived.
“I am the greatest,” Ali used to say repeatedly. “I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
In 74 incomparable years of life, Ali did more than talk his way into greatness. He was the very essence of great. There was an intrinsic majesty about the man that helped him transcend his brash beginnings and become the most respected, then beloved, sports figure in the world. The mere sight of Ali could induce tears, and while the wet stuff was tinged with sadness about his illness, it was hard to feel sorry for an icon who deserved so much admiration.
Do you know how much charisma you must possess to remain charismatic when it seems like you’re lost inside yourself? For more than 30 years, Ali managed to be subdued by a wicked disease but never minimized. Never. He could dominate a room when he was the loudest, fastest and funniest heavyweight champion ever. But even in painful silence, he made the air change in public. He did it with a mumble or a grin or with the Olympic torch in hand to start the 1996 Atlanta Games. Mostly, he did it with heart, which was evident in the way he fought epic battle after epic battle in the boxing ring, in the way he didn’t use celebrity as an excuse to ignore his beliefs and in the way he simply cared about people.
The last time I was in the same space as Ali: four years ago, during a 2012 NCAA tournament game in Phoenix. Ali, who was born in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., had come with his wife, Lonnie, to watch a Sweet 16 game between Louisville and Michigan State. He wore a rosy dress shirt, black slacks and sunglasses. When he arrived, fans in the arena cheered and stared, never mind the marquee event happening. Ali didn’t do much to acknowledge them, couldn’t do much. But it felt like a special moment, even though it was impossible to be certain whether Ali knew exactly where he was.
Before Ali, sports hadn’t seen a star on this level. And now it’s safe to proclaim there will never be another star like him. There will never be an athlete talented enough to captivate with his ability while also being brave enough to remain principled and authentic enough to overcome the controversy he created by expressing his views on divisive topics such as race, war and religion.
There have been athletes with comparable awe-inspiring talent; Michael Jordan is among them. There have been athletes who meant as much to social progress; Jackie Robinson is on that level, without question. There have been athletes with the personality to extinguish fires they started; Kobe Bryant is the latest. But Ali had all three traits, and his redeeming qualities were natural, almost accidental, not the product of any premeditated bid to alter his personal narrative.
A few years ago, when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman barked and taunted his way to the Super Bowl, he mentioned that Ali was his idol, same as LeBron James and many other bright young athletes who know their sports history. In the ridiculousness of Super Bowl hype, some media members wanted Sherman to compare himself to Ali. Sherman, to his credit, maintained perspective despite being flattered.
“It’s very humbling,” Sherman said then. “It’s very humbling to be compared to Muhammad Ali because of all the serious ridicule he went through, the serious racial degradation and stigmas that he had to fight, the stereotypes that he had to fight against.
“He had to really stand his ground and almost go to jail because he wanted to stand up for what he believed in. So I think his situation was a lot more brave and a lot more serious than my situation is now, obviously, and he had to deal with a lot more scrutiny and just headache and criticism.”
There is bravado, and then there is courage. The latter is what separates the champ from every other outspoken athlete who we think has a little Ali in him. For as much swagger as Ali displayed, he proved, in his most trying moments, to have more substance than initially thought when he announced himself as “pretty” and “king of the world” upon entry into stardom.
Parkinson’s disease robbed Ali and the world of his voice as he aged. But he never really went silent. If you listen closely, you still can hear him. His influence is louder and more endearing than his archive of quips.
There are millions of Ali admirers like me. I didn’t live through the 1960s and wasn’t lucky enough to experience his rise during an era of transformative social activism. I was alive for just his last four fights, three of which he lost as he clung to boxing for too long. Yet I feel more connected to him than many of the sports stars who define my lifetime. Part of that is our Kentucky heritage. To be from the same state as Ali, to know that such a marvelous human came from a region taunted and maligned and dismissed for its ugliest traits, validates my Bluegrass pride. If Ali is the best of us, we don’t have to feel torn about our roots. Maybe you feel that, too, about sharing this country, this world, this planet,with someone who evolved from being the Louisville Lip to the People’s Champion.
I’ve had to look at old footage to understand the speed, skill and fighting intelligence that Ali used. I’ve had to read old newspaper stories and books and watch old interviews to grasp how clever and funny and insightful he was. But when I last saw him in Phoenix four years ago, I froze, on deadline, and nearly forgot I was covering a basketball game.
Ali once explained his philosophy on training. His words seem so prescient today: “Suffer now, and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
That’s exactly how his 74 years progress, despite the limitations of illness. Now, he can tote his heavyweight title — a belt even more precious than even he expected because it includes compassion and fearlessness — into the afterlife. Ali expected to punch his way to a legacy, but he will be remembered as much for the people he embraced as the boxers he defeated.
Right now, we mourn the champion who we lost and the humanitarian who disappeared into his body before we really knew how to honor him. He felt the love, but he didn’t experience it fully, not when he was lucid and able to respond the way he wanted. But Ali being Ali, he already had envisioned it long ago.
He is the greatest, now and forever. No more convincing required.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
More coverage of Muhammad Ali’s death: