Wojo: Ali was a mesmerizing showman, and so much more
Before end-zone dances and flashy bat flips, before Joe Namath guarantees and LeBron boasts, before self-expression in sports became part of the entertainment, there was a master showman who started it all and changed it all, in ways much deeper than that.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t willing to go along to get along, and that, in addition to his incredible boxing skills, made him more than the Greatest of All Time. He divided people, right before he united them.
We won’t see anyone like him again, although we see flashes of him everywhere. We’ll never see anyone in the sports world risk so much to fight social issues, as Ali did with his anti-war stance that cost him three-and-a-half years of his career. Today’s athletes are empowered and enriched and don’t have nearly the same battles to wage, and much more to lose financially.
Many of the sports figures memorializing Ali, who died at the age of 74, didn’t see him fight. Some never heard him speak, except in old clips.
And that’s the power of the man, silenced much of his final 32 years by Parkinson’s disease, still capable of stirring intense emotion in so many — young and old, black and white, Muslim and Christian, inside and outside the sports world. Cruelly, Ali was forced into a time capsule, frozen in manner and speech. Thankfully, when wrenched open upon his death, the images are well-preserved.
Ali was a riveting, flickering figure on my TV in 1971, when I was a 10-year-old who wasn’t sure what I was seeing. He was smooth and cocky and funny, expressive beyond comprehension for a youngster. Today, kids mimic and marvel at the joyful play of Steph Curry, or Bryce Harper, or Odell Beckham Jr., but that’s where it ends. Athletes aren’t required to take social stands or make moral arguments to further their careers.
You’ll read a lot of superb remembrances of Ali, and I don’t pretend to have as much insight as others. I do know the biggest mistake is to oversimplify the man. He objected to the Vietnam War in 1967 along moral, religious and racial lines and was arrested and stripped of his title. His famous quote — “No Viet Cong ever called me (n-word)” — staggered people at the time. So did his conversion to the Nation of Islam in 1964, when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali.
Ali was too complex for some to comprehend, and yet somehow, after all his battles against the White establishment, he connected with many. He performed in the most starkly perfect venue — one man, one opponent, one ring, one winner, one loser. It was much easier to define Ali the boxer, and when the 22-year-old stunned Sonny Liston in 1964, it was much easier to embrace him.
He could be cruel in his craft, “rope-a-doping” George Foreman and turning Joe Frazier into an ugly caricature of a black man, something Ali later said he regretted. He had a voice and he used it, for empowerment and change, for fame and some fortune.
The power of personality in sports is huge, but only widely impactful when coupled with success. Ali was the greatest heavyweight of all time, although Joe Louis and Rocky Marciano supporters will fight me on that. I must admit, I’m biased by the aura, the most enduring I’ve ever seen.
Covering the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, I watched Ali step shakily to the stage and light the Olympic torch, and it seemed like America was revealing the best of itself to the rest of the world. It was a striking image of at least one healed past, a black Muslim man dressed in white, representing a nation.
Obviously, all has not been healed, and Ali can do no more. Will anyone else be strong enough to do more, or is there no cause as great as the ones his generation faced?
I love the impact and exuberance of athletics, within reason. Celebration is different than taunting, although Ali did both. Confidence is different than disrespect, although Ali exhibited both. He could do it because he was the playful punisher, the most magnetic athlete of our time, one of my heroes before I even knew what it meant.
Shadows eclipsing greatness
My lasting regret is I never interviewed Ali, although I saw him several times. In 1992, he visited with Michigan’s Fab Five during the NCAA Tournament and told Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and the rest not to apologize for their brashness, and they didn’t.
Cockiness sometimes gets confused with greatness in sports, but Ali never made that distinction. He was both, and he showed it everywhere he went, even when his feet slowed to a shuffle and the stages shrank.
When I was in Tampa in the mid-1980s, I made a point to go by a hotel where Ali was making an appearance as part of his endorsement deal for d-CON roach traps. I remember thinking how undignified it must be, the Greatest of All Time selling a bug killer.
His boxing career had ended a few years earlier with a depressing loss to Trevor Berbick, and evidence of his Parkinson’s was just beginning to surface. I entered the lobby and saw the champ getting on an escalator, going up, the sunshine lighting his face. He turned and waved and told a joke I couldn’t quite hear, and like everyone else standing there, I just stared.
“There goes the Greatest,” a few people mumbled as Ali went higher and higher, and the circumstance made no difference and elicited no pity. Only awe, all the way to the top, all the way to the end.