Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016
succumbed last night in Arizona to a pulmonary ailment at age 74.
Inexplicably, we're shocked when celebrities die as if they're privileged with an immortality denied the rest of us. But, despite Ali's age and the health ailments that had steadily begun to accumulate over the last third of a century, the shock at his passing is somewhat understandable.
How could such a lively, vibrant man abruptly disappear, forever denying the planet earth of one of its most famous ambassadors?
Ali was a man of contradictions, to be sure. A man who made his living brutally beating other men to a pulp would later become a proponent of peace, occasionally going to the Middle East to secure the release of American hostages. Most famously, he
The great fighter had lived, and fought both in and out of the ring, long enough to witness his own country come full circle. Despite winning the gold medal as Cassius Clay in light heavyweight boxing at the 1960 Rome Olympics and becoming an up-and-coming heavyweight contender, Ali was still refused service at lunch counters on account of the color of his skin. Before fighting Jerry Quarry in his comeback fight on October 26th 1970, Georgia Governor Lester Maddox, infamous for his axe handles, had threatened to put a halt to the fight being fought in Atlanta.
Of course, the only reason why Ali didn't serve his full five years for draft evasion was because the Supreme Court had unanimously ruled that Ali's
Yet, as much as Muhammad Ali represented the anti establishment and came to symbolize a new type of athlete, in a way he was very old school. In today's fight game, when cautious and corporately-coddled champions defend their titles in 12 round bouts but once every one or two years, Ali brought back his own version of Joe Louis' "bum of the month club", taking on all comers for up to 15 rounds every few months. During the 70's, it seemed he was perpetually in training mode, as if trying to make up for those lost three and a half years of his prime. Just fighting Ali was enough to elevate even club fighters such as New Jersey liquor salesmen Chuck Wepner in the top ten rankings.
The second half of Ali's life, while establishing him as a goodwill ambassador for the United States, the Nation of Islam and the entire human race, was considerably more low key. As Ali slowed down, he began taking more shots to the head, losing his last two bouts to Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick (his final bout in December 1981). For the last 32 years of his life, he slipped deeper and deeper into Parkinson's, a disease common with fighters.
But he never lost touch with the world that had adored him over the last five and a half decades. Just before his death, Ali had authorized a press release criticizing Donald Trump and his vow to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. In it, Ali had written,
“Our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people's views on what Islam really is.”As with many of us in our mid fifties and up, Ali had the misfortune to live long enough to see this nation come full circle in its racial views. Or perhaps, white America never did evolve after the 60's and merely went to ground. Yet Trump's rise emboldens long closeted racists to resurrect the days of the insults at the lunch counters, random attacks on African Americans and police brutality and racial profiling against them.
As with Babe Ruth, Bobby Orr and Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali was that rare kind of athlete who was so freakishly talented he literally changed and elevated his sport. It's a shame that even The Greatest was not as efficacious in changing and elevating the rest of world with his mantra of peace and religious and racial harmony.
(Addendum: Faithful Reader and walking encyclopedia CC informs me Ali never went to prison but was free on appeal of his sentence and gave lectures. My apologies to the Ali family for this error.)