I’ve been thinking about Muhammad Ali all weekend. His death, while not entirely surprising, was still pretty stunning. The man was a cultural icon, and for people who were kids in the 70s, he was something of a superhero. He was quite literally everywhere. He was more animated than most of the cartoons we watched. He was charming and charismatic and he never, ever talked down to children. Of course we loved him.
But we didn’t know that much about him. Unless we had older relatives who liked boxing, we didn’t know much about the Rumble in the Jungle or the Thrilla in Manilla beyond the catchy names. We didn’t fully understand that he beat other men up for a living (more on my feelings about boxing in a moment). We didn’t know about his name change or conversion to Islam, and we certainly didn’t know about his association with the Nation of Islam or his defiance against the draft (unless we had older relatives who were passionately on one side or the other of that debate). We just knew he was cool and funny.
Ali was cool, but he was also revolutionary. He dared to fight being drafted into Vietnam by declaring himself a conscientious objector; his Islam was a religion of peace, and as a Muslim he would not kill people who had done nothing to him. (I’ve got to note here that my admiration of Ali’s resistance has no bearing on my respect for the young men and women who did go to Vietnam. They did what they believed was the right thing to do, just as Ali did, and they sacrificed so much in their battles over there. The blame for Vietnam will always belong to the politicians and military brass that dragged us into an unwinnable mire.) Ali’s beliefs and actions were unheard of at the time. He didn’t lie or run away. He stood up and said “No.” For a black man in the 1960s, that took undeniable strength and courage.
Muhammad Ali mattered less for what he did for a living than for what he did as a man. His resistance of the draft caused him to be stripped of his title and more than three years in the prime of his athletic life. He made that sacrifice willingly, knowing he might never go back to the ring, because he believed he was right. Some might call that egotistical, even hubris. I call it being a righteous human being.
I think boxing is barbaric. Not the part about two guys beating the hell out of each other; I can almost understand that. The barbarism comes in with the crowd cheering it on. (There is a lot to be said about the racial and class aspects of boxing, of how most fighters are lower class and people of color and how most of the promoters and audiences are higher class whites, but that would take a whole book to unravel adequately.) But Muhammad Ali brought an artistry to fighting that no one else has been able to replicate. He brought a showmanship and personality to a sport that was frankly pretty bereft of both. He won Olympic gold and the championship title three times. It wasn’t always pretty, and the beatings Ali took in the ring led to the Parkinson’s that ultimately took his life. No, I don’t like boxing at all. But I think Ali was a pretty damn good fighter. In all ways.