'The Greatest' Dies at 74, His Legacy is Alive and Well
To add to the growing pile of notable deaths in 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away in an Arizona hospital on Friday night at the age of 74. It's only taken about five hours of YouTube footage for me to start to accept this cold and daunting reality.
My Dad was a big, goofy white guy from Texas, who was the biggest Muhammad Ali fan that I've ever met in my life. One of my father's favorite stories was when he met Ali in the early '90s, and Ali sort of fake punched him in the stomach and called him “The Great White Dope.” It wasn't just Ali's boxing that caused my Dad's childlike fandom, but his single-minded pursuit of freedom for marginalized and oppressed Americans outside of the ring. When I learned about “The Greatest” as a kid, I became more impassioned and inspired than there are words to describe.
Early in his boxing career, Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali. He felt that Clay was a slave name, and he was a free man. He joined the Nation of Islam, and began rattling the unholy dogshit out of the racist power structure of the 1960's. This transition wasn't easy. Even other black heavyweights would still call him 'Clay.' Ali quit being nice about that fact during a fight with Ernie Terrell, during which Ali taunted Terrell by shouting “What's my name, Uncle Tom?! What's my name?!” in between blows.
In 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War. When asked by a reporter what the reason for this refusal was, Ali said that he wasn't going to go over to Vietnam to kill other poor people, driving the point home by saying “I've got no quarrel with no Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”
He was stripped of the World Heavyweight Title, as well as his boxing license in every state, and faced up to five years in prison at the height of his career. From the age of 25 to nearly 29, Ali wasn't allowed to box professionally in the US, despite the fact that he was the undefeated Heavyweight Champion of the World when the government decided it was time to get him in line. It's not as if refusing the draft was the first time that Ali was involved in civil rights activism. He had charm, a platform, and was outspoken in a way that turned every head in the country toward the realities of being black in America at that time. These are the reasons he was drafted, and they're also the reasons that he's a legend.
I wasn't even a sperm when Ali was changing the world, but I've drawn inspiration from him for as long as I can remember. When I was 10, I watched this VHS compilation of his fights and interviews every day for almost a year. Granted, we didn't have cable, but I also watched it so often because I needed to make sure I didn't miss anything in those old clips. I was amazed by what he was fighting for, what he was saying, and how he was saying it. That old tape laid the groundwork that shaped my worldview more than almost anything else in the last 20 years.
Boxing may have been Ali's passion, natural talent, and career. But it was also the vehicle for his much more important message. The ideas of equality, individuality, never letting anyone put their boot on your neck, and standing up for what you believe in, even if it may cost you everything, are the real legacy the man leaves this world. There are plenty of better boxers than Ali was, but there'll never be a greater champion.