One of the benefits of being old is being able to type things such as, “Remember when.” There was a time when sport was, like the newsreels of old, in black and white. Athletes went about their jobs with a stolid efficiency, silent, effective machines.
Then, suddenly, in 1964, a boxer named Cassius Clay entered the scene like a tornado with a savage jab. But he was more than a boxer, even if nobody knew it at the time. He faced off against Sonny Liston, a people’s champion who embodied all the things of the athletics of that time. He went about the task of separating opponents from their senses with something that verged on zeal. Boxing, for Liston, was work — knock man down, get paid, do it again.
And then came Clay, the antithesis of Liston in every way, right down to skin tone for a race of people who were busy self-suppressing with vile things such as the “paper bag test” that disdained their own blackness. Clay didn’t care. He was brash, he was bold, he talked, and skipped, and jabbed, and flitted about the ring. He was Technicolor to Liston’s black-and-white, talkies to the silent era of athletics. Even the punch with which he felled Liston was this thing that was a slash more than a pummel, the coupe de grace after a symphony of flicks.
Sport, not just boxing, would never be the same. When your favorite footballer struts and preens, pointing to the number on his back after some psychotic golazo, when players trash talk, when anything glitzy and dazzling happens pretty much anywhere in sport, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to trace it all back to the Mouth from Louisville, the man who declared himself, without a hint of hyperbole or exaggeration, “the greatest of all time.” He was everything to everyone.
Every kid wanted to be Muhammad Ali. He boxed, but his face was pretty. He didn’t lumber, he danced. His girlfriends and wives were beautiful, his cars were the best, he was one of the first celebrity athletes who turned his life into something upon which people could write their hopes and dreams. People loved him, and loved to hate him. He would make up rhymes about what round he was going to knock an opponent out, and then do it. It’s almost unfathomable now, when seemingly every athlete dances and preens, and the ones who don’t are considered anomalies, to remember a time when nobody did — except for one man.
What it meant to be black changed because of him. What it meant to be a top athlete changed because of him. Expectations from the superstar athlete changed because of him. Everything, everywhere changed, because of him.
Any and all vows to not shed teas for a complete stranger fall by the wayside when you consider his life, in which every aspect of it, everything that he did, was a struggle. He willingly sacrificed prime boxing years for something that he believed in. He was a glistening icon of peak blackness during a turbulent time in America’s civil rights history, a time when every fight of his was more than a ring battle — but rather a moratorium on race. He had to win, because the consequences of him losing were more significant than just won-lost records, as he carried the hopes of an entire people.
When he willingly discarded four years of his boxing career for what he believed in, William Rhoden wrote in the New York Times:
“Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?”
Martin Luther King, Jr. got off the fence as regards the Vietnam War, as a symbol became an icon. Suddenly Ali was more than a boxer, this being seemingly carved from caramel-colored ivory, firm jaw and unflinching gaze, willing to do nothing more than everything, to sacrifice everything for what he believed in.
Massive paydays and absurd contracts started with Ali, as did the permission for an athlete to be more than a machine — they could be a symbol, a person with hopes, dreams and beliefs, a larger-than-life thing that could stomp the terra like a mastodon. Ali was global before anyone knew what was happening, the precursor of the superstar athlete. He was the one name that you could say in any country anywhere in the world, the one phrase that never, ever needed translation.
We watch soccer today, and wonder what the hell any of this has to do with a boxer, and the short answer is everything, especially for athletes of color, but also for the true superstar. Messi on a billboard in China? Neymar’s Instagram posts going viral? Would mega-star athletes have been the same had Ali not upset apple carts as if his footfalls were seismic? Everyone wanted to be Ali. He affected everything. He didn’t do all that much except box, excelling in a space where there is nowhere to hide, where the unbearable pressure of being so much to so many must have made life almost unbearable — and yet he did everything.
The world is suddenly a little quieter today in the wake of the massive life of the man who screamed after a fight, “I shook up the world!” He did at that. Everywhere, in every way, for everyone whether you know it or not, realize it or not. A racist threw a banana at Dani Alves, and Alves ate it, like Ali consumed everything around him, up to and including expectations of not only what a black man was supposed to be, but what an athlete was supposed to be. And he used what he consumed for energy and drive.
If someone doesn’t really intend to change everything, it in no way affects the reality of what they did. Just be you. That’s what Ali did as a boxer, human rights icon, civil rights flashpoint, litmus test, irritant and magnificent example of what can be possible if you just be you. The greatest of all time? It ain’t bragging if you can do it.