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Remembering Muhammad Ali in his bursting totality

Muhammad Ali was immense.

Peel away any layer of him — incandescent physical genius, nexus of national debates over race, religion and war, progenitor of modern self-promotion, aging athlete left shattered by his own greatness — and it's heftier than the entirety of most sports figures.

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And yet it feels wrong to speak of him only in weighty tones on the morning after his death at age 74. Ali was also a lot of fun, a goofball who loved to perform magic tricks and hang out with the same writers he chided. He was a staggeringly famous, photogenic figure who nonetheless felt like a man of the people.

I feel unworthy to write about Ali, because he never belonged to my generation the way he did to the generation of my parents. We did not see him in the fierce beauty of his youth, when he fired the imaginations of those who loved him as much as he disquieted those who did not.

For me, and I assume for others my age, he was a safer figure — already battered into retirement and universally beloved by the time we became aware of him.

But I remember when I was 8 or 9 years old, listening to my godfather — the man who really taught me sports — talking about Ali over dinner. "He was so fast, you just could not touch him," he said. This was a white, middle-aged southerner, and he was absolutely aglow as his mind drifted back over Ali's youthful masterpieces.

As I became a fan of not just sports but sports writing, I realized no other athlete had inspired half as much memorable prose. Ali brought out the best in so many writers — Norman Mailer wrestling with the nature of of manhood, Mark Kram parsing the terrible poetry of his rivalry with Joe Frazier, Dave Kindred capturing the boxer's playful humanity.

I remember being struck by a passage in a Robert Lipsyte piece in which Ali talked about his Muslim faith. He said he'd contemplated the possibility someone might murder him because of his beliefs and that he did not fear the prospect. Up to that point, I'd mostly conceived of sports as just wins, losses and fun. But here was a champion who swept the real, terrifying world into the show.

He was so obviously, magnificently alive to these older men that he began to own a greater place in my own consciousness as a fan.

And then I became a deeper student of boxing, accumulating a shelf full of DVDs covering the great fights of the last half-century. I watched Ali through that prism.

There, on the screen, was the quickness my godfather had described, which allowed a young Ali to defy all the conventional rules of how a man is supposed to defend himself in a prize ring.

There was the will to endure inconceivable punishment in pursuit of victory — a trait that came to define Ali's middle period, after he'd lost three years because of his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

If you only know the Ali-Frazier fights as abstractions, go watch the first and the third. Even stripped of greater cultural context, they're remarkable athletic demonstrations. This might not be true for people who can't get past the brutality, but for me, a great fight carries an energy unmatched by any other happening in sports. Actually, that's true because of the brutality, the sense that something more elemental than victory is at stake. If any sporting event has captured that feeling more potently than the Thrilla in Manila, I haven't seen it.

But if I could magically teleport to one night in the history of all sports, I'd probably put myself in Madison Square Garden for Ali-Frazier I. Forty-five years later, the thing still crackles, and I can hardly fathom the anticipation in the room that evening.

Ali, the elegant former champion who'd never lost his belt in the ring and who'd come to mean so much to a generation fed up with the political establishment he had defied. Frazier, the relentless stalker who'd risen from tougher circumstances than Ali and had been unfairly freighted with the hopes of many more culturally conservative fans.

I'm sure I would have rooted for Ali in the moment. He was simply cooler. But I've gained more sympathy for Frazier as the years have rolled along, not only his courage and his unrelenting left hook, but the pain he felt at being rejected by an American whose struggle he represented. Kram wrote brilliantly about this dynamic, taking Ali to task for the cynical way he used racial stereotypes to belittle Frazier.

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Theirs was a relationship that never seemed resolved, even when Frazier died in 2011. And Frazier's resentment of Ali was understandable, if unfortunate.

So much social turbulence baked into a fight that lived up to all expectations on its own terms. We'll never again see its like.

As thrilling as it was to revisit Ali in his magnificence, it was equally painful to watch him in his last fights. I knew exactly what was coming when I popped in his misbegotten challenge to a prime Larry Holmes. But tears welled in my eyes as I watched a bloated Ali, his reflexes gone, absorb stinging shot after stinging shot.

The vast majority of athletes stick around after their bodies have begun to fail them. But have we ever watched so brilliant a performer pay such an awful, public price?

Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease four years after the Holmes fight. And the man whose tongue danced as nimbly as his feet was rendered silent for much of his long, final act.

He still lived with grace and humor, even as the story of his life had to be told mostly by others. He long ago outcharmed and outlasted his critics, gaining a stature most heads of state could only dream of.

But as we celebrate Ali over the next days and weeks, I'll try to cut through the inevitable gauze and remember him in his bursting totality — the beautiful face, the silly poetry, the cruel taunts, the principled stands, the athletic courage, the depressing decline.

So much to read, watch and feel. Giants pull you into their sway.

twitter.com/ChildsWalker

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