By the time my boxing consciousness awakened, Muhammad Ali had long ago entered the elder-statesman phase of his life. I remember Holmes and Cooney. There was a menacingly dominant heavyweight of my childhood and adolescence, but it was Tyson, not Ali.
The Ali I knew was a gentle man trapped in the throes of Parkinson’s, a shadow of what he once was physically but with every bit of the presence that melted both presidents and paupers alike. He was no longer a boxer, but had transcended sports to become a national icon, whose surprise, trembling appearance to light the Olympic flame could bring people of all ages and races to open tears.
So to discover that Ali was once widely reviled, as divisive a figure as there was in America at the time, came like a slap in the face. It was less an education about Ali than about an America my generation never knew: an angry, segregated America where an outspoken black superstar was seen not as the man of principle he would become but a threat to the established order.
Even without knowing any of that, Ali in retirement was no less compelling a figure than he was when he was still in the ring. He may have provoked more impeccable prose than any single human of the 20th Century.
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From biographer Thomas Houser to Norman Mailer to the litany of jaw-dropping pieces in Sports Illustrated – none more resonant than Mark Kram’s piece off Ali-Frazier III, the Thrilla in Manila – sportswriters never had a muse like Ali before and there may never be another. Documentarians, too, with “When We Were Kings” the best of the bunch.
If Helen was the face that launched a thousand ships, Ali was the athlete that inspired a thousand voices. He was a once-in-a-millenium personality.
And yet the Ali many wrote about wasn’t the Ali that I had grown up with. It was a different Ali: An Ali portrayed as insolent and angry and out of control. The discomfort, if not outright hate, was palpable and undiluted even through the passage of decades.
How could Red Smith, whose writing remains as fresh as the day he wrote it these many years later, pen such venom about Ali? His columns about “Cassius Clay,” as so many insisted on calling him – who, all these years later, looks petulant now? – dripped with disdain.
How could such perceptive people overlook the genius behind Ali’s verbal gymnastics, the intelligence behind his style in the ring, the courage behind his willingness to stand up for what he believed?
Ali’s past became the doorway to truly understanding an American past whose intricacies largely eluded those of us born in the ’70s and later, giving new context to the latter-day perception of Malcolm X, the Anti-War and Civil Rights movements, the Nation of Islam – names and events that were no more than proper nouns and history-quiz answers in our minds.
His transformation from feared to beloved had much to do with how Parkinson’s forced Ali to leave the more incendiary parts of his personality behind and embrace the natural goodwill that never really left him (and would eventually guide him toward a more peaceful, orthodox Islam) and was the foundation of his ebullience.
But it had more to do with how America changed from the ’60s to the ’80s to today. The idea of referring to an athlete by something other than their chosen name (Metta World Peace, let alone Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) is anathema. Athletes are permitted, and in some cases expected, to participate in political or social movements that have personal meaning to them.
Even the blatant racial discomfort espoused by prominent journalists early in Ali’s career has been largely (if not completely) resigned to hand-wringing suburbanites agonizing over a charismatic black athlete’s “pelvic thrusts,” received by more eye-rolling than head-nodding.
Which isn’t to say America has moved entirely beyond the racial malignancy that made Ali so polarizing, not by a long shot, but the arc of his life demonstrates how far we have come.
Luke DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, 919-829-8947, @LukeDeCock