Wait Till You See Muhammad Ali: He Was The Greatest
Like fireworks expanding endlessly as they leapt skyward (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsyHynebp4s), Muhammad Ali just kept taking away your breath. When you thought he’d crested and was headed back to earth, a new spray of colour and noise emerged. We never wanted it to end. As it did on Friday. Inevitably, as it does to all men.
Had Ali he been born 50 or even 25 years earlier, the world would likely never have known him beyond his boxing prowess. His boxing skill would have been recognized in any age, like Jack Johnson’s. But he’d have stood on the outside of society, an amusement to proper people, one who never penetrates the public consciousness. If he’d gotten too “uppity” they’d have made him a non-person.
Ali was the right man at the right time. Malcolm Gladwell described the capriciousness of opportunity in his book Outliers. He described a talented lawyer in NYC in the 30s who had never quite found his niche. He’s a Jew at a time when that’s an impediment to the big WASP law firms in New York who control almost all the business. He did real-estate law, small stuff. Never got to his peak.
But his son was born into a different world with more opportunity— in the field of arbitrage, a process disdained by the WASPy old-line firms. With no opposition and no bias for his religion he helps make it into a huge success, re-drawing the boundaries of commercial law. He finds the huge success his father never found. Timing.
But Cassius Clay came of age in the ‘60s when the Democratic Party ditched the Jim Crow rootsit had cultivated since the Civil War to suddenly become the party of racial progress. Black power was responding to the second-class status it held for so long. Soon Clay would adopt the Black Muslim faith and the name of Muhammad Ali.
His conscientious-objector status, which cost him almost four of his peak boxing years, was fuelled in part by his blackness. But, in truth, many white Americans suffered for their opposition to the war. It was Ali’s sterling example that led to the abolition of mandatory military service in the U.S. To the long list of opponents left on the canvas you can add the selective-service draft.
The media, too, was shedding its Father Knows Best image in the early ‘60s for something a little edgier, a little more charismatic. The acerbic Howard Cosell, Ali’s amanuensis for 25 years, was supplanting the bland corporate shills on TV. He looked off the beaten path for stories. And found the verbal geyser known as Ali. He was the Louisville Lip, the loudest and (as he proved) baddest man when the heavyweight title ranked with the presidency and the World Series in America’s consciousness.
It’s said that we can never truly know how history felt at the time it was being made. But watch the post-fight melee after he beat Sonny Liston the first time in 1964 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZ2p0j9W_OI). See the wonderment of Ali’s brashness as he shouts his glory and the befuddlement of the old-timey announcer trying to fit him into the conventional peg hole for athletes.
He was impossible to pigeon-hole. And he was unafraid to play the heel at times. His treatment of opponents such as Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman (to name but a few) was unspeakably nasty. Frazier, especially, bore the brunt of Ali’s mean-spiritedness, his inability to resist the crowd’s approval. “Frazier is so ugly he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wildlife.' 'Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head.’ 'It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila.'
But then he was back with the poetry, the innocent early rap, rife with its silliness and laughs. “You know I’m bad. Just last week, I murdered a rock, Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick. I’m so fast, man, I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet. I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree. Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.” All was forgiven.
Like the chrysalis, he morphed into something new and remarkable, just as the public’s interest in him declined. From the lightning bolt in the boxing ring he became the ennobled Parkinson’s victim, suddenly reduced to a cuddly, mute ambassador of mirth. As he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, trembling with his disease, it was hard for those of us there not to tear up. People who only kept one sports photo kept their picture with Ali from those days.
They like to say there will never be another when a legend dies. LeBron James? Though he’s 6-foot-9, 275 pounds the King knows he stands on the shoulders of the one true King. And wouldn’t have it any other way. This is what we are left with Ali, who measured the times of his life and got the best of the argument.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy
Bruce's career is unmatched in Canada for its diversity and breadth of experience with successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. He was a featured columnist for the Calgary Herald (1998-2009) and the Globe & Mail (2009-2013).