Perhaps this is a good moment to take the measure of Muhammad Ali, and of ourselves. We cannot measure up to “The Greatest” as athletes, poets or showmen.
It’s likely he would rather that we measure ourselves against the progress we’ve all made over the 50-some years since he burst onto the scene. There is no question that Ali – whose prayer service was Thursday in Louisville, Ky. – is part of that progress.
Ali was certainly the greatest boxer of his generation and very likely one of the greatest of all time. He won an Olympic gold medal; he won the heavyweight title three times (which means he lost it, too). He sat out 42 months at the peak of his career and still returned to the pinnacle of his sport.
He not only reinvented boxing, he reinvented himself whenever needed. He could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee; he could rope-a-dope; he could go toe-to-toe in a Thrilla in Manila.
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Proud of his looks as a youth, he could stand just as proud trembling with disease as he lit the Olympic flame.
Born in 1942, he won the gold medal in 1960. He rose to prominence as a pro four years later by knocking out the heavily favored Sonny Liston. The short right hand moved so swiftly many insisted Liston had taken a dive; there were no such excuses when Liston gave up in the rematch a year later.
A handsome man, Ali appeared to mock those he prepared to fight – creating rhymes that ended in a prediction of the round they would fall. Many called him arrogant, brash, a self-promoter. They preferred their athletes – especially black athletes – more humble, quieter.
Ali rejected that role. He didn’t care if you hated him; he didn’t care if your only interest in his fights was to see him fall. “The Greatest” didn’t need your approval. That much was clear as he made several courageous – outrageous at the time – personal decisions.
He changed his name, rejecting Cassius Clay for Muhammad Ali. He joined the Nation of Islam (though he became a more orthodox Muslim in 1984). He stood up for African American rights and equality. Finally, he refused to take part in what he considered an immoral war.
That was the last straw for many. He was jailed, then stripped of his titles. He was vilified.
When he emerged unrepentant, he was not as quick as he once was, but no one could doubt he was a great boxer. He not only regained the title but elevated his fame to unparalleled heights, becoming the most recognizable man in the world.
Even his opponents, who could not match his brilliance, basked in his glory: Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes and George Foreman. Without Ali, they’re footnotes. His boxing career ended in 1981 with 56 wins (37 KOs) and five losses. The record was immaterial; Ali’s glory was his personality.
Many believe it was the hundreds of blows to the head that likely led to Parkinson’s disease. But even a foe he could not vanquish could not beat him.
Ali founded Athletes for Hope; he raised millions for a Parkinson’s research center in Phoenix. He was named a special ambassador by the United Nations; he was given the National Medal of Freedom. And there might not be a more touching moment in Olympic history than when Ali lit the flame in Atlanta in 1996.
Finally, most of the nation would come to respect his views about the Vietnam War, if not totally agree.
If we’re going to measure ourselves against Ali, it is best to measure how far we’ve come. And know Ali played an immeasurable part in getting us there.