I woke early on Saturday to the sad news, news we were expecting, but no less awful for that. Muhammad Ali is gone. The most revered sportsman of all time. The Greatest. Despite having spent the last thirty years being ravaged by the debilitating condition that is Parkinson’s Disease, his passing still comes as a shock. Isn’t that the way it always works, though? Somehow, regardless of the relentless inevitability of death, we don’t expect our heroes to die. No matter how many times it happens, we find it hard to accept the mortality of heroic and iconic people.
It’s part of the human condition. Each of us are programmed to view our heroes as transcendent, quasi-immortal figures. Even the grim certainty of death is unable to penetrate this cruel illusion. Such deception of the mind is especially common with individuals as iconic as Ali. We just can’t accept they’re gone. It doesn’t seem right, plausible even, that someone so superhuman and powerful is as mortal as the rest of us. Even when we’re confronted with inescapable evidence of their fragility, as we had been through Ali’s cruel, chronic illness, we find it difficult to accept the merciless truth. I suppose this syndrome is one of the reasons people still occasionally see Elvis in chip shops. Heroes just aren’t supposed to leave us. And that’s why it devastates us when they do.
I’m too young to remember Muhammad Ali fight. Instead, I came to him through my father. My Dad is the biggest Ali fan imaginable, Muhammad Ali is his all-time hero. Like many of that generation, Dad seemed to regard Ali as the personification of sporting perfection. Therefore, I grew up with stories of the legend. The iconic fights, the trash talk, the peerless record of achievement. As a young lad, I heard about Ali’s brutal three fights with Joe Frazier and of course the big daddy of them all: the Rumble in the Jungle when Ali dethroned the mammoth George Foreman to regain the heavyweight title. The Rumble intrigued me the most. Forget the amiable figure with the grill. Foreman was an utterly terrifying pugilist in 1974. My Dad would regale me with stories of this gigantic, intimidating man who seemed virtually indestructible. And yet the immovable object was indeed defeated, Ali employing his controversial and innovative “Rope-a-Dope” strategy to fell the hitherto unbeaten Foreman. I subsequently watched the fight myself in later years, and the Rumble ingrained the Ali legend in my mind.
When I discovered more about the man, though, what really interested me was his life outside the ring. I’ve always been fascinated by Ali’s activism; the name change, his strident opposition to racism in all its ugly forms, and his courageous refusal to be conscripted into the Vietnam War. For me, these convictions and crusades truly illuminate Ali the man. His conscientious objection to Vietnam, moreover, defined Ali’s career as much as anything else. His opposition to the controversial war cost Ali three years of championship bouts at a time when he was entering the peak of his athletic powers. The enforced sabbatical undoubtedly had a detrimental effect on the ascendant star. How good would Ali have been otherwise? It’s a sobering question! That Ali came back so spectacularly from this fighting exile to enjoy the most celebrated moments of his career in the 1970s tells us all we need to know about this remarkable man.
What about Ali the campaigner? Societal achievement can be hard to quantify, but the champion arguably did more for African-American rights and equality than any other individual. Long before Barack Obama, Ali was often a minority voice in the wilderness, shining a light on America’s inequalities and providing a vision of pride, integrity, and achievement to which millions of African-Americans could aspire. The champion had his faults, but I think it’s difficult for the modern mind to appreciate just how courageous and prescient Ali’s fearless stance against racism was. Of course one can be churlish and suggest that the sometimes vitriolic nature of Ali’s activism actually fostered division, but this view fundamentally misses the point. In becoming a global hero to millions of people of every class, colour, and creed, Ali promoted an inclusiveness that transcended petty human division. Ali’s mass appeal, in fact, helped eradicate prejudice in a way that legions of elected representatives can only dream of. And his vocal, unapologetic opposition to racism and inequality paved the way for the integrated American society millions take for granted today. This inspiration was felt throughout the world. That is Muhammad Ali’s lasting legacy, as far as I’m concerned.
In sporting terms, Ali boasted an aura and charisma that matched his supremely electrifying talent. Many have since imitated, but no-one has come close to generating the box office appeal so effortlessly exuded by the legendary fighter. Boxers like Chris Eubank and Naseem Hamed attempted to captivate the sporting public with a crude simulation of Ali’s theatrics, but their performances were less than convincing. When it came to charisma, charm, and humour, there was only one Muhammad Ali. If illness hadn’t reduced him so savagely, this man could have done anything. Movie star, lecturer, President, who knows what he might have been if Parkinson’s Disease hadn’t intervened? I think that sense of loss one of the reasons Ali’s illness and death are so galling. We know we’ll never see his like again.
As if all that wasn’t enough, any fair summation of the man must also account for his humanity and character. For all Ali’s unprecedented exploits in the ring, the three-time Heavyweight Champion’s later years proclaimed him as a universal role model who set the bravest of examples. The proud and dignified manner in which the great man handled his illness speaks volumes for Ali’s character: he had integrity, fortitude, and humility in abundance. How ironic that Parkinson’s robbed him of that priceless ability to speak out, to elucidate his thoughts in the articulate way we were used to. In a strange way, though, Ali’s more muted appearances in recent years highlighted the bravery and humanity of the man in a way that words simply cannot capture. Sometimes there are just no words capable of defining the human spirit. It’s horrible to think that any person should suffer the cruel symptoms inflicted by a degenerative disease like Parkinson’s. Nevertheless, patients of this cruel illness-and others like it-couldn’t have had a better advocate and role model to highlight their suffering. The great man has gone. How sad we’ve finally lost him. He has left us with a tremendous legacy, though. Muhammad Ali was the greatest. In more ways than one.