“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want to be.”
My grandmother once told me she didn’t root for Muhammad Ali in every bout he fought, but she was always in his proverbial corner when the title was on the line. I’m not sure how old I was when she shared this with me, but the timeline of my life held up against the trajectory of Ali’s career suggests my age was in the single digits. Thus, it was partially a lack of worldly experience that contributed to me feeling perplexed by the statement. To me, Ali was simply The Champ. Wasn’t every fight a title fight? I didn’t realize that he won and lost the heavyweight title three separate times, the only boxer to do so, nor was I aware of the tradition that the honorific of “The Champ” was one that was held for life once achieved, deferentially offered like “Mr. President” years after someone has cleared their belongings from the desk in the Oval Office. Ali was The Champ. Surely, he was the only one. Anyone else believing they were worthy of the name was just a hopeful, deluded impostor.
Of course, one of those instances that left Ali without the heavyweight title he held moments before was delivered with not a gloved punch but a legal decree. He famously refused enlistment to fight in Vietnam, declaring himself a conscientious objector on the basis of his religious beliefs. There can be little doubt it was a wholly sincere action. Despite attempts to paint the fighter as some duped militant because he initially came to his Muslim faith through Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, at the height of the group’s political agitation, Ali was deeply devout throughout his life, praying multiple times a day, immediately revealing the secrets behind his beloved magic tricks to honor the religion’s prohibition against deceptive acts, and requesting that his star on Hollywood Walk of Fame be placed on a wall instead of the sidewalk, explaining, “I bear the name of our Beloved Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him), and it is impossible that I allow people to trample over his name.” Ali was vilified for the choice to refuse wartime military service, often by the same individuals who would gladly stand up for the principle of respecting religious liberty at all costs if it were being leveraged in favor of their own hateful agendas. To this day, certain moron politicians can’t resist taking swipes at Ali’s character for his supposed draft dodging, even in the midst of national mourning of Ali as a singular icon. That at least one miserable human being who’s been elected to political office compounded the offense by also referring to Ali by the slave name he cast aside over fifty years ago speaks to the rampant bigotry that fuels the persistent animosity of an ugly minority.
Ali knew full well that his race and religion were mighty factors in the negative public reaction. He often addressed those aspects of the situation directly, bringing his formidable verbal skills to an ongoing explication of the systematic oppression built directly in the American experience, even for someone as broadly successful and celebrated as he. As David Remnick powerfully recounted in his engrossing biography of Ali, King of the World, the future champ was deeply impacted by the horrific story of Emmett Till, a fourteen year old boy murdered by two men for daring to step out of the social confinement that they decided he needed to reside within. Ali was roughly the same age when he encountered news reporting on Till, in the pages of Life. For the rest of his life, Ali lived the conviction of unyielding and unashamed self-authority. That majestic assurance in his autonomy combined with his instinctual genius for showmanship to make him a towering, astounding figure, not just in his home nation but around the globe.
And, my lord, he was glorious in the ring. In the annals of American sports, there have been exceptional athletes, such as Babe Ruth, who fundamentally changed the game they played, leaving it an entirely different pursuit than when they found it. There are also those, such as Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, who simply performed at a completely different level, forcing competitors to strive to meet them. But then their sports regressed back to prior levels after they retired, like silt settling to the bottom of a river that has stopped churning. Ali is the only athlete I can think of who dominated every aspect of his chosen sport to such a degree that the void of his eventual absence left it feeling utterly irrelevant. There are undoubtedly many reasons for the decline of boxing, led by increasing unease at its barbaric nature, but the rough alignment of the descent’s origin with the overlong exit of Ali from the sport can’t be entirely coincidental. Once the opportunity has come and gone to bear witness to The Greatest, perhaps the most accurate nickname in the history of sports, why continue to watch? After Ali, it was all shadow boxing.
In the midst of his exile from boxing, in 1968, Ali sat for a television interview presided over the by the odiously condescending William F. Buckley. At one point, Ali took questions from the assembled audience. The first came from a young Jeff Greenfield, who asked, “Are there times when you miss being heavyweight champion of the world?” Ali’s response was as swift one of his devastating punches: “No, they miss me.” True then. Truer now.