The Greatest: Muhammad Ali 1942-2016
By Lon Maxwell, Reference Department
Muhammad Ali is a legend. Even though he has passed on he will forever be a legend in the present tense. That is because he was so many things to so many people. Boxer, philanthropist, spokesman, Olympian, activist, father, author; all these words have been used to describe him. So have words like arrogant, controversial, polarizing and confrontational. Who he is to you is entirely dependent upon who and what age you are.
I don’t actually remember a time where I didn’t know who Ali was. One of my first comic books was a DC Comics Collector’s, Muhammad Ali versus Superman. The story was ridiculous, but here was the greatest hero out there and he was working with Superman. At the end he even figured out Clark Kent was Superman. So much for being the “greatest, not the smartest.” I can remember sitting in front of the big Curtis Mathis console TV and watching him fight. My dad was a boxing fan of a sort and even my mom had gotten a bit of the bug from my grandfather. I had seen heavyweights fight before, but nobody fought like Ali. Float like a butterfly wasn’t bravado or a catchphrase, it was his style. Most of the big guys took five or six shots and then hung all over each other until the ref separated them. Ali, however, was amazing. He danced, skipped, and swayed. Even in still photos of his fights you still feel the movement. His hits were spectacular. Those good shots that dropped guys like Frazier and Liston were so quick and so short that it looked like nothing, but the fall said it all. Quick jab and a big man go down to the mat. No other boxer ever captured my attention like that.
As I grew older, I learned more about the man. My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Katko, held him up as one of the great men of our time. This was not because of his boxing, Mr. Katko couldn’t have cared less about sports, it was because of the example he set for inner city kids. I went back and learned more on my own. The young Cassius Clay, Olympic boxer from Louisville, struggling to learn and striving to be the best at what he did. The man of faith who converted to Islam did not care if it was popular, just that it was his faith. The thing that impressed me the most was the draft incident. I grew up surrounded by World War 2 and Vietnam vets. Draft dodger was a term I was very familiar with, but I never heard any of them apply it to Ali. Here is a man who stood up to the authority of his day and said:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?.” Muhammad Ali, March 1967
He knew it was controversial. He was told what it could mean to his career and his freedom. He just didn’t care. Ali stood up for his beliefs in defiance of imprisonment and professional loss. He had no way of knowing he would be saved by a Supreme Court ruling or that he would fight his way back to be a champ. He just knew that he was in a position to take a stand that would make people take notice. As a teen, that was the most awesome thing about him.
That’s not to say that I no longer cared about the boxer. I had tried my hand at boxing, fighting as a middleweight. I looked up to the great middleweight of the day, Sugar Ray Leonard, but I wanted to fight like Ali. I fought three bouts, knocked down three times. The third time, I decided that I would not be a punching bag again. The experience made me think even more of Ali, Leonard and all boxers. They persevered in a way I knew I never could, and that demanded respect, the respect of knowing what they did, not just assuming you couldn’t do it.
Finally as a young man I remember watching Muhammed Ali at the 1996 Olympic opening ceremonies. The Parkinson’s that had taken a large part of his life had not stopped him. He’d become a spokesman for the disease, funding research centers and once again using his struggle to highlight the fight of millions. He’d gone to Iraq during the first gulf war, and negotiated the return of 15 hostages. It didn’t stop him from climbing the steps and, hands shaking, light the Olympic torch over Atlanta. I’m not ashamed to admit that I had a tear in my eye watching that.
Muhammed Ali has not passed away. He has transcended this world and moved into the realm of American heroes. He is now of the same stuff as Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crocket. Real and hyperbole. A thousand years from now people may not know Tyson, Foreman, Holyfield or Mayweather but Muhammad Ali will still be taught in schools.