Any attempt to distill Muhammed Ali into one quote, one accomplishment or even one story is a failure. It’s the quintessential truth, and an enduring compliment to a man whose legacy is bigger than a single perspective.
Often, when a celebrity dies in our current culture, there is a race to boil him or her down to a crowning achievement, or a moment of collapse. We portend to have this ability, to pigeon hole someone of his social girth and largesse into a capsule befitting our favorite milieu, and that it will be received with consortium and praise. As if the writer has unearthed the very center of the man. When pontificating on Ali, the exercise is utterly impossible. He was bigger than every story written about him today, even those that take a wide berth to paint him as multi faceted, and enormous.
It is appropriate to cast him as the greatest fighter of all time, or the greatest boxer. Many believe the two are entirely different animals. It is appropriate to bestow the moniker of “the greatest” upon whichever homily you preach.
It is appropriate to identify him as loquacious, hyperbolic, sensational and the most quotable athlete of all time.
It is appropriate to consider Ali a champion of his race, his religion, his culture, his ideology, and of course his profession.
It is appropriate to consider him not only the most influential athlete of the last century, but also among the most influential human beings for a considerable cross section of that time.
What is inappropriate, is to define him in any singular capacity. He was gargantuan. His rise meteoric, his abilities unparalleled, his personality boundless and authentic. Love him or hate him, he was fervently true to his form. His exile at the apex of his career serves in hindsight as an epic poem on the American experience of the 1960’s. His mouth gave birth to poetry and prose that captivated, enraged, enlightened and threw our social construct headlong into debate, and reflection.
Not a bad eulogy for a guy who beat people up for a living.
To be any of the perceptions of Ali, on its own, would be enough to elevate him as the stuff of legend. His work in the ring remains the benchmark of greatness in boxing more than three decades after his last punch. His language, the oral bibliography he launched into microphones from every corner of the globe, tower over any professional in any sport we’ve ever heard.
The impact Ali had on us all, even subconsciously, is the shaping of our collective views on sport, war, civil disobedience, racism, religion, humility, charity, sickness and now death. The Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus, he was bigger than the Beatles. President Obama may be the most recognizable man on earth, but Ali inspired the concept long before. There is no hyperbole when it comes to Ali. He was hyperbole, personified.
Don’t try to define him today. Whether you admire or revile him, I suggest you make peace with the fact he defies your impression. He was more than he was. And his legacy will transcend any rendition.