2016 is shaping up to be an unusually cruel year in terms of celebrity deaths. With David Bowie starting the trend (unless you count Natalie Cole’s New Year’s Eve passing), this year has seen what seems like a weekly or monthly exodus of our best and brightest from the mortal stage. And now we come together yet again to mourn someone whose impact is not easily measurable in terms of what he did so much as what he was.
The greatest fighter I ever saw in my lifetime was Mike Tyson; I was two when Muhammad Ali retired from boxing, and so I missed out on seeing him except through archival footage and later, when Parkinson’s took ahold of him, stumble and shake through present-day exchanges with journalists. I never saw Ali in his prime, not in real time. But sometimes, as John Ford famously put it, when you have to choose between the truth and legend, you print the legend.
Ali grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and was most likely its most famous native son (in some circles, he might share the billing with Gonzo journalist and famous friend Hunter S. Thompson). He won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, but really shocked the world in 1964 by beating Sonny Liston. He did this as a twenty-two-year-old still going by his birth name of Cassius Clay; he would announce his conversion to Islam soon after the title fight and change his name to that of Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X was a presence at his ringside, and Ali wasn’t exactly a Joe Louis figure that white America could embrace. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that Ali and Jackie Robinson were the two most important athletes of the twentieth century in America, if not ever. Neither was the best at their sport, but both were important symbols for opening doors that had seemed closed to those of black skin in the nation that was supposedly born with the motto “all men are created equal.” Ali was famous almost as much for his mouth as for his fists; a verbal wit always on display when he came into the ring of television with his sparring partner Howard Cosell. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is his most famous quote, but he had others, at least until the repeated blows to his head, triggering the Parkinson’s that defined his later years, seemed to almost silence him.
But almost, not quite.
Beyond the boxing ring, Ali was a symbol of defiance, be it against the Jim Crow laws of his native South or the draft board that singled him out for special punishment when he refused to fight in Vietnam, memorably telling the world “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” He was kept out of the ring for two years, in the prime of his career; today it would be unthinkable for any athlete to go so long without competing unless the extenuating circumstances were domestic or substance abuse. When Ali came back, he came back hard, and it was an even harder road to the championship than it had been when he shocked the world in 1964. Ali even provided the inspiration for Sly Stallone’s “Rocky” franchise when he allowed a young white boxer, Chuck Wepner, to challenge him for the title.
As Ali receded from the boxing world, it would have been easy to reduce his legacy to a few memorable fights, and some pithy comments directed at opponents. But Ali was so much more than that. Outside of the ring, he offered a vocal opposition to the long-held belief that black men and women were somehow “inferior” to whites, not intelligent or courageous enough to merit inclusion into the ranks of “American citizens” because of the bias of those in power. He embraced Islam at a time, and through a church (The Nation of Islam), when we didn’t know much about the religion except that it wasn’t Christianity and there seemed to be an awful lot of black people embracing it. In our post-9/11 world, as the verbal and physical attacks against that religion have mounted, we have forgotten that in our midst was the greatest athlete to ever fight in the ring and that this athlete embraced the religion that we now see as an “enemy.” Muhammad Ali never preached jihad or embraced hate of those non-Muslims that paid to see him fight; if only we could do the same.
Ali will be sorely missed, but his example as a defiant champion who faced adversity and overcame it will continue to inspire not just Americans but all the world’s inhabitants. He shocked the world not just by being the champ; he shocked it by being authentic. Would that we could all be so brave and courageous when the odds are against us.
Trevor Seigler is a graduate student and TA at Clemson University, currently working on a Master’s Degree in English and looking to pursue an MFA degree in creative writing after graduation. He is a native of Walhalla, South Carolina. Among his favorite authors are Charles Portis, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, Barry Hannah, and Thomas Pynchon.