I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want. —Muhammad Ali
On the off chance you missed it elsewhere, Muhammad Ali died last night. He was the headline on this morning’s New York Times. Again. You can read his obituary here; please do, someone worked hard to get it just right. There are obituaries is almost every publication available this morning. Ali was one of those people who transcended his sport. He wasn’t just a boxer. He wasn’t just the three-time champion. He wasn’t just the rebel. He was The Greatest, and that presents a problem right now.
Have you ever met a boxer? Not just someone who messes around in a local gym, but a real heavyweight? They’re unique individuals. I’ve met Evander Hollifield on a few occasions, even have pictures running around here of him at a Christmas party. He’s a big man, but he’s no Ali. I’ve literally run into Ken Norton (ouch, that hurt) once, but he’s definitely no Ali. I’ve seen George Foreman from across the room; he’s big and he’s mouthy, but he’s never been close to being Ali.
Are you beginning to see the problem? When Muhammad Ali first called himself The Greatest, it stuck not because it made good print copy, not because it was audacious, but because he was right, and everyone knew it whether they wanted to admit it or not. When one is The Greatest, it is difficult to write an obituary or memorial piece because there is no adequate comparison against which to judge him. No one did what he did, the way he did it, with the mouth, the rebellion, and the dominating force that was present both in and out of the ring. No one. How the hell can anyone encapsulate that into a single article?
The answer is: you can’t. Since the early 1960s, people have been trying to tell the story of this man born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky. His filmography listing on IMDB is as long as anyone’s. The hundreds of thousands of newspaper articles are impossible to accurately index. Photos number in the millions. People have been trying to document the life of this man longer than I’ve been alive and no one has gotten a full, complete picture. It’s not going to happen because Ali was The Greatest and that’s just too much to every put into one box.
Much of what is written about Ali today is going to center around his boxing and the controversy surrounding both his unusual style and his public actions outside the ring. Those are the pieces most well-known in this very public life, and yes, they are important, but there’s so much more that is likely to be missed.
For example, did you know that Ali’s father was a painter? A damned good one, too. There are still a few places around Louisville where the work of Cassius Clay, Sr. can still be found. Had he come along some twenty or thirty years later, Clay, Sr. might have been a celebrated artist and his son might have taken a very different path through life. That wasn’t what the universe had planned, though. Clay, Sr. couldn’t even begin to get the attention of the established art world in the 1950s and that fueled an anger that influenced his son.
Ali was largely illiterate. The state of public education for blacks being what it was, he was never taught to read well and as a result, the rest of his academic experience was far from notable. Fortunately, he was extremely good at memorizing and would carefully re-write his speeches over and over and over until he had them cold. He could also be very spontaneous, even at a young age, with a wit that was sharp and biting, but often humorous as well. Again, had he come up at a different time, given a different educational experience, he might have been a great actor, but that didn’t happen either.
The champ took his religion seriously. When he converted from Christianity to Islam in 1964, a lot of people thought it was just a publicity stunt. Many others thought it was merely a dodge to avoid being drafted into the Vietnam situation. What few saw was that his conversion was real. While the path he took had some challenges and perhaps a misstep or two along the way, his was not merely an emotional conversion without any conscientious backing. He knew what he was doing. He sincerely believed the writings of the Quran and tried living according to its principles, even when the whole religion was under fire.
What may be most difficult to communicate, though, is that Muhammad Ali achieved all that he did, became what he was, triumphed over everything while being a black man in a white man’s world. Those of us who are not black, and perhaps even some who are, cannot begin to understand the enormity of the challenge that placed on Ali from the moment he was born. Even after winning the Olympic gold medal for boxing in 1960, there were still restaurants at which he couldn’t eat. Even in his hometown of Louisville, he was still referred to by that ugly n-word. Those of us who have never been in that situation, who have never endured racism at its most harsh and consistent and oppressive reality don’t have a clue what it takes to break away, to still climb to the very top, not just the top of boxing, but the top of American society and declare, “I am The Greatest.” Muhammad Ali did just that, though.
There have been a lot of famous people die already this year, many of them catching us by surprise. Ali’s death wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t something he feared. The announcement early yesterday afternoon that the champ was in the hospital on life support was a courteous way of letting media outlets know they needed to update their files and prepare their stories for publication. Ali didn’t have long, and less than 24 hours later he was gone. The challenge in writing about Ali’s death, though, isn’t that he was just famous. He didn’t just do that one thing way back in the 60s or 70s. Ali was more than just a 30-second memorial clip running on the morning news. Muhammad Ali was The Greatest. There’s never been anyone like him. There never will be ever again.
All the words, the pictures, and the videos are simply not enough. Muhammad Ali was larger-than-life in ways that can never be sufficiently captured or explained. The best we can do is try to tell our children and grandchildren that there once was a man who overcame everything the world could throw at him to become The Greatest.
His name was Muhammad Ali.