Boxing is a dreadful, evil, awful activity. To call it a sport in the 21st century gives it a dignity if does not deserve. That all said, there was Muhammad Ali. He died today, and when really famous people die, the New York Times is where we must go for the gospel. Here’s the Robert Lipsyte euology.
The Curator will have more next week. In the meantime, and with respect for Mr. Lipsyte, I have some thoughts.
Mr. Ali aka The Greatest was truly the most extraordinary—very unusual or remarkable, per Mr. Google—man of my times. The Michaels, Jackson and Jordan, were a big deal for sure. Sir Paul’s passing, Many Years from Now, I hope, will not go unnoticed. And President Barack Obama will, without the revisionist history which was required to elevate President Ronald Reagan to his so-called legendary status, be a man for the ages. (Someday soon I will share the story of my hour or so in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute.) All of those men aside, I can think of no one in my lifetime who more broadly captured the populace with which I share this planet than Muhammad Ali.
There is something extraordinary about a kid from Louisville who, with wits (and wit) and fists, attained so much success. And there is something truly Greek about how that very success—which depended on others repeatedly beating on his head—left him demented and doomed to an early death.
All of that aside, Mohammad Ali was a man who failed the “go along to get along” test. Miserably. He took his lumps by refusing to go to war, claiming conscientious objector status. His case ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court, where a unanimous court—Justice Thurgood Marshall recusing—reversed a Circuit Court ruling in favor of the government, and granted him the status he claimed.
He converted to Islam at a time when that was unusual, to say the least about it. (Don’t you wish he had been fully functioning, just to hear some reactions to the Donald?) And he did not convert quietly; instead, he did so very publicly, dumping what he called his slave name, Cassius Clay.
Mr. Ali made boxing for decades. It is a truly awful sport, for sure, but with Mr. Ali there was The Fight of the Century with Joe Frazier, The Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman in Zaire, and the Thrilla in Manila, where he fought Joe Frazier once again. By the way, he lost the first fight against Frazier, won the second, and beat Foreman.
He fought for too long, surely, but I’d like to hear about a boxer who quit early. Even Sugar Ray Leonard from a later generation, a man who seemed to walk away at the right time, came back, more than once.
Many words have been and will be written about Muhammad Ali. For sure, he made his bones by engaging in an activity so barbaric it ought to have been banned decades ago. And, as I noted earlier, he got the tab for what he did. Still, we cannot ignore the fact that someone who engaged in a lawful activity did it so well, and with such flair, that for many years he was the most recognized and admired person on Earth.
Rest in Peace, Mohammad Ali, may your memory be for a blessing, and may you for eternity always float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.