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Muhammad Ali: The most consequential of athletes

Muhammad Ali: The most consequential of athletes

He was a giant 20th Century figure who transcended sports.
Muhammad Ali: The most consequential of athletes
Muhammad Ali evades a left from Joe Frazier during their title bout, the 'Fight of the Century,' at Madison Square Garden in New York, March 8, 1971. Five years after being stripped of his titles for refusing to register for the draft, Ali suffered the...
Photographer: Larry C. Morris/The New York Times

The tributes for and recollections of Muhammad Ali began Friday night as his death watch commenced in earnest, intensified after his passing at age 74 was confirmed early Saturday, and will continue in the days and weeks ahead.

Good. This is a discussion that needs to be had. Ali was not just a revolutionary boxer and three-time heavyweight champion. He was a showman, a poet, a clown, a civil rights activist, a trash-talking blowhard. He was mean and gentle and so much more. There is a lot of ground to cover.

Ali proved to be incredibly brave in the ring, in the public arena and in private life, especially after Parkinson’s disease robbed him of almost all his Ali-ness, save for that mischievous twinkle in his eye.

No athlete was more polarizing, more singular in talent and personality or, in the end, more inspiring than Muhammad Ali.

He’s being eulogized as charismatic (definitely) and controversial (undoubtedly). But Ali was more, always more. For all he was inside the ring and out, Ali was the most consequential athlete of all time. He mattered. More than The Babe. More than Michael. More than Jackie.

Yes, more than Jackie Robinson, the man who (re)broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. For all that Robinson did on the field and off standing up to the common-day racism he confronted, is there a doubt that if he had never existed, someone else would have taken up that mantle?

Someone, at least eventually, *had* to play the role of Jackie Robinson. (And Larry Doby did become the second black major leaguer months after Robinson.) No one, not even Will Smith, could have stood in for Muhammad Ali.

Simply, there was no one else quite like the man born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. before or since. He mattered to sports, to society as a whole, to the black community in particular. By his outspokeness fueled by his athletic brilliance, Ali paved the way for athletes to use their station to speak out on issues beyond the confines of the playing surface — social, political, religious — and many followed his lead, from Bill Russell and Jim Brown to the conscious of today.

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize,” is one of the hundreds of Ali quotes resurrected Saturday. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

Ali gave up three years of his prime for refusing to serve in the military because of conscientious objections— objections later upheld by the Supreme Court. It cost him his financial stability. That, plus his conversion to Islam and his stances on racial and other issues, made him a pariah in much of mainstream America. “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life,” is one of his most recalled quotes.

His greatest? “I am The Greatest.” (Indeed, Sports Illustrated named him the greatest athlete of the 20th Century.)

Then there is the athlete. The whole sabermetrics thing in sports — that most athletes/teams can be quantified/sorted by identifiable statistics — is accurate only to a point. Ali’s pro record, 56-5, doesn’t capture his artistic brilliance, his speed and power and technical acumen, how quick his hands were, how he could take a beating and, later in his career, how he could rely on sheer guile and still win (mostly).

For all his “Float like a Butterfly/Sting like a bee” aphorisms, his true poetry was inside the ring. The Ali Shuffle. Rope-a-Dope. The way his jabs came from waist-to-chin at you-never-saw-it speed.

He was not a perfect man. “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick,” he said. And Ali was, especially to Joe Frazier, a man who stood up on his behalf to get his boxing license back. Their three fights were vicious, but not as vile as Ali’s racially tinged putdowns promoting those fights. Frazier had a right to be bitter until his death toward Ali. (He labeled Frazier “an Uncle Tom.” Even Ali later expressed remorse.

When Parkinson’s struck in the 1980s — such a cruel irony for a man once so fast with fist and wit — the world watched a giant figure slowly ebb away. But Ali had one last indelible act to perform on the public sports stage.

In a surprise move at the 1996 Summer Olympic Opening Ceremonies in Atlanta, Ali took the Olympic flame from swimmer Janet Evans to light the torch. His left hand shook uncontrollably, his wristwatch gleaming in the glow of fire and light. His head bobbed. But the 1960 gold medalist’s face registered pride as he looked out at the adoring crowd, and an adoring world.

In the grip of a soul-sapping condition, it was a public act of defiance by a defiant man. In that act, a polarizing figure brought the world together. It was, like so much of what he did, consequential.

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