When I went to my staff Friday night in search of someone to write the Muhammad Ali obit, staff writer Amy Green answered, “I’m under qualified….just couldn’t do it justice.”
Amy writes very well and can hold her own with anyone in terms of boxing knowledge, but she was right. She was right about all of us. How could any of us do the life of Muhammad Ali justice? Who out there putting pen to paper isn’t under qualified to tell the tale of such a man?
By now, you’ve probably seen dozens of Ali bios and highlight packages since he passed. I can’t do any better than the best and maybe only slightly better than the worst, so I won’t even bother with the career and life retrospective.
This Rant will be just about what the man meant to me and why his passing has left me feeling as though a piece of my heart went with him. Silly emotionalism, yes…yet another target for my detractors, yes…but who gives a fuck?
To me, as a poor kid struggling with the dramas of going to “rich kid” schools, Muhammad Ali sat atop a personal pantheon of noble anti-heroes and rebels, made up of both real people and literary characters. There was Henry Miller, Bob Dylan, Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, Hunter S. Thompson, The Dalai Lama, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Ali– always Ali above all. And when things got really rough for me, Ali’s story stood as proof positive that one man COULD take on the world. He stood as the template for all those who wanted to stand tall and fight the good fight with dignity in the face of what seemed to be insurmountable odds.
The Ali I grew up with was not the beloved, respected figure who passed away last Friday. I remember the Ali who was not the poster boy for all things noble. I remember the fighter who drew the ire of fans and, in some circles, was a truly hated figure. Among my circle of relatives and friends growing up, you would’ve been hard-pressed to find a kind word about him.
It was in spite of this attitude that I came to admire Muhammad Ali, both as a man and as a fighter.
Ali’s battles inside the ring were one thing—legendary in and of themselves—but his battles outside the ring were what spoke to me most. Already more than two decades old when I really became aware, the story of him refusing induction into the Army was seminal to my development as a young man. It served to reinforce the code of ethics and morals I had created for myself as a child struggling to understand an unjust world. His story gave me a crash course in the concepts of integrity, fair play, and in defending one’s principles. Most importantly, watching Ali informed my sensibilities regarding one’s responsibility in dealing with injustices. Never stay silent, never bow your head, never accept less.
But unlike most other fearless warriors willing to stare down a nation, Ali’s wasn’t a suicide mission. He actually won. The world bent to accommodate Muhammad Ali and he died like the hero that he was.
That’s why I loved the man.
Ali fought for the simplest of all things– the right for a man to be his own man, to have his own name, to live his life as he wanted, and to raise his hands in battle when he chose.
And, no, Ali was not perfect. He was a flawed human being just like all of us, but mistakes are forgivable when you’re fighting a battle as big as his. Nobody gets through a life worth living without occasionally going too far and being too zealous in the cause. Eternally noble heroes who do all the right things at all the most convenient times only exist in comic books.
Muhammad Ali was my hero and if I cry a little while writing this, it’s not because he’s gone, but because there will probably never be another like him.