Muhammad Ali, the man born Cassius Clay, passed away last night at the age of 74. Ali was the only athlete that comes to mind that could ever come close to living up to the incredible moniker that he became associated with – The Greatest. He was quite simply the most unique and memorable athlete of all time.
Massive outpourings of grief and remembrance from every walk of life are flooding the internet. In the public sphere, you have politicians, celebrities, and of course, fellow athletes from both the past and present sharing their feelings.
My early favorite tweet came from another of Ali’s combat sports descendants, UFC champion Conor McGregor. “Nobody will ever come close to this man’s greatness. And if they do, they better wake up and apologize.”
It is a derivation of one of Ali’s many bold and clever proclamations… and there is a sneaky wisdom in this tacit acknowledgment by McGregor, another elite fighter known for talking trash.
All the top cocky and braggadocious athletes have been copying the Muhammad Ali blueprint for self-promoting greatness the past 50 years.
The immensity of Ali’s impact is too large for me to seriously consider at this moment. In truth, it was too large for me 20 years ago at UC Berkeley writing my undergraduate history thesis about him.
And just like then I am going to try to write about him anyway -- partly because I think it's important to try but mostly because it simply makes me happy to do it.
In the days and weeks to come news outlets and online sites will be filled with articles about his accomplishments.
Yes, he won the light-heavyweight Olympic gold medal in 1960.
Indeed, he was the 3-time heavyweight champion of the world in the greatest era of heavyweight boxing ever.
It is true he lost three years of his prime when he was stripped of his heavyweight title for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War and was a prominent social activist in his day.
And so on and so on.
Even just from the above facts one can get a sense that Ali was an incredibly gifted athlete as well as a socially conscious man willing to sacrifice for principles he believed in.
But no story about Ali will ever be complete by just telling us “what” he did.
It was also very much about “how” he did. To witness the speed of his hands and feet in the ring, the brazen wittiness and eloquence of his words, the strength of his heart and the toughness of his chin when under attack by another boxer or even the United States government (and most of the public) – these qualities help fill out the picture.
Then there is the immense charisma. The man just oozed charm and could hold a crowd in the palm of his hand like few public figures in modern history. He was the biggest star in any room he was ever in.
Don’t believe me? Think about the most famous celebrity, politician, or athlete that you can and put them in a room with Muhammad Ali. Who do you think everyone would try to talk to? They would all be lining up to speak with Ali…and that other celebrity would be right there in line with them.
While some may argue as to whether he is technically the best athlete of all time, or even the greatest boxer, few who have any understanding of sports history will dispute his place as the greatest sports personality to have ever lived.
And don’t even get me started on the impact.
One can imagine some ignorant talking heads believing they are being generous when they compare Muhammad Ali to the other great American athletes of the 20th century. When emphasizing his immense talent he might be measured against Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan. When discussing his social impact perhaps the suggested comparisons are with Jackie Robinson or Billy Jean King.
But those comparisons are wholly inadequate.
Most apparently because Ali was a global figure in a way none of the others were – with only Jordan coming anywhere close. And unlike Jordan, Ali’s global appeal primarily stemmed from his principled stand against American state and corporate power, not in service of it.
To say he transcended sports would be a silly understatement as well. He was not merely a great athlete or a social activist - he is more akin to a mythological hero – a modern day mixture of Hercules, Achilles, and Odysseus. If you are over 30 years old and did not have a non-sports opinion about Muhammad Ali then you had no feeling for the social pulse of the planet.
Reminiscing on his death left me flooded with questions that I had no immediate answer for – but the magnitude of the questions themselves were mind-blowing.
What would race relations look like without a Muhammad Ali?
Has there ever been a better self-promoter since the invention of the television?
How is that we have had 50 years of sports since a young Cassius Clay burst on to the scene and we still have yet to find someone talk trash better than he did? And how come whenever anyone is good at it you get the feeling it’s because they’re copying him?
What would rap music be like if Muhammad Ali had never existed?
How come so few truly famous athletes or entertainers stand for anything outside of sports other than the dollars they receive for selling products? And that is not to dismiss the genuine charitable efforts of a number of influential athletes and celebrities, but why no willingness to risk?
You can be assured there will be substantial time and energy spent by the writers here at the TheDailySportsHerald.com asking and exploring these and other questions.
But for this moment, we will just mourn and pay our respects with the rest of you.
Co-editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com