I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want. — Muhammad Ali
By Kyle Magin
Were Muhammad Ali born 50 years earlier than 1942, he’d have been lucky to get a shot at the heavyweight boxing title of the world, and more likely to end up as just another poor black man in Jim Crow Louisville. Were he born 50 years later, he’d be coming up on his second NFL contract as a linebacker or tight end and hastening his date with Parkinson’s and CTE in an alternate universe where the end really wouldn’t have been that different.
As is, Ali died Friday, his life both a triumph and tragedy, a man for his time who was marvelously feted and brutally victimized by the dates on his headstone and the skills he was blessed with.
Everything about the modern era’s greatest heavyweight–the Louisville Slugger, a 56-5 boxer who defeated a laundry list of the best ever to fight (he faced down six Hall of Famers and beat them a combined 11 times), frequently on international stages when boxing stood second to only baseball in the American sports fans’ consciousness–is double-edged.
His athletic lifespan put him smack in the middle of the deepest heavyweight era of all time, which aided his fame and fortune as surely as the hands those men threw–Liston’s bruising, shoveled-in liver shots, Frazier’s jarring, unseeable left hook and Larry Holmes’ freight train of a jab–aided in his long, tortuous decline as a victim of Parkinson’s disease. I never knew the Ali of my father or grandfather, the million mile per hour mouth, the devastating quickness married with the giant-stopping power.
He was always a shaky old man, eventually a frail, shaky old man, and then a showpiece wheeled out by hucksters in seersucker suits whenever there was a dollar to be made off the old champ’s name.
Ali’s pompous pre-pugilistic pronouncements–I handcuff lightning and put thunder in jail–were as key to his self-confidence building ahead of a fight as they were to the contempt a certain cohort of Caucasian America’s held for him. One wonders, if he was a reluctant or silent warrior, in the cut of Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson, would Ali have faced the scrutiny he did for refusing to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam conflict? Did his Muslim faith, which buoyed him and kept him away from the chemical addictions which crashed so many of his opponents, also mortar a wall between he and the nation he won Olympic gold for?
Ali even left the world a contradiction. His long descent into disability rendered him a kindly old grandfather for so many of us–few under 35 years old remember him as anything more than a kind of ornament to the 60s and the heavyweight division’s heyday, a fragile figure tipping a torch into Atlanta’s cauldron in ‘96.
His time as an American lion–a brash, principled warrior who took big time American sports to Africa–is so far past as to be ancient to today’s Cam Newton fan. Everything that made Ali great makes him unrelatable.
Everything that made him relatable–the frailty, the stumbles–obscures his greatness. The icon died an icon. The old man died an old man. You’re lucky if you knew both.
RIP Muhammad Ali, 1942-2016.