A long time ago, the boxing world lost the great Muhammad Ali. He’d graduated beyond the sport and belonged to the world. Now, the world has lost him, and he’s graduated to the Universe. That one man can touch so many to such a profound degree is impossibly rare. Beyond boxing, race, religion, gender, age, language, economic position, fame, flags, trends, or any imagined boundaries we can think of, there was Ali!
Once, Ali was hated. Pick a reason. He didn’t think, act, speak, or look the way he was supposed to. He proudly represented his country to become an Olympic Gold Medalist. Then he refused to do so as a military draftee. He held the most important position in sports at age 22, Heavyweight Champion of the World. There was nothing bigger or more prestigious. He was not quiet or humble or controllable. He refused to not speak his mind, and that made a lot of people very uncomfortable, even the ones who admired him. In the 1960’s when he couldn’t drink from the same water fountain, attend the same school, eat at the same restaurant, ride on the same part of the bus, he still had no problem telling the world “I am the Greatest!”
How dare you Ali? What is a Muslim anyway? What do you mean you won’t go to war or kill? What do you mean you are no longer Cassius Clay because it’s a slave name? What do you mean you won’t go into the Army? This is the 60’s, you have to do what you’re told, why don’t you know your place?
What are you saying Ali? Even we don’t understand. Are you afraid? So many who look like you are looking up to you. You are our proof that we matter too. You are our proof that we can do what others say we can’t. You are our proof to show to the world that we are equal and can even be great if given the chance. You’ve shocked the world in boxing, you’re almost there, don’t let us down now! Don’t give them another reason to hate you! Don’t give them another reason to deny us!
Hatred has no real reason beyond ignorance or fear. Ali stood his ground and won his biggest, most important fight. It took the rest of his career but he took away the fear of him. He let people get to know him and understand him. He did not return the hate. He did not return the rejection. He did not return the betrayals. Boxing was his vehicle to show his true greatness, his love of people, all people, those who looked like him and those who did not. He had an ability to bridge all perceived differences.
He was hated because he was Ali. Gifted and brash and beautiful and proud and intelligent and honest beyond what people wanted to hear.
He was loved because he was Ali. Honest and intelligent and proud and beautiful and brash and gifted beyond what we had ever seen.
When I was a boy Ali was mine! Nobody loved and admired him as much as I did. It was not possible. As he stood, shaking and proud, lighting the Olympic flame, I realized that he had come full circle. The same Ali who had won Olympic Gold. The same Ali who had thrown that medal off of a bridge because of how his country made him feel. The same Ali who stood his ground for his constitutional rite of religious freedom. The same Ali who came back to win the hearts and minds of doubters all over the world. As he once again represented the country that he loved and that loved him, I realized that he belonged to everyone.
The story of Muhammad Ali may have started out as a sports story, but it became a love story. Ali was blessed with talent and became a blessing to the world. The true responsibility of power and privilege is to embrace and protect those who don’t not have it. To take them with you even as you soar. The bigger Ali became, the more he showed his heart to the world. That heart eclipsed even his immense talents. He was the greatest as a boxer and even greater as a man.