He brought bravado and poetry to his life as an athlete and controversial figure. But in death the complexities of Muhammed Ali will be overlooked as casting a shadow on one of the world’s most identifiable figures.
Columbus – THREE-TIME heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali will be memorialized today, Friday, June 10, in his hometown of Louisville, Ky.
Ali, who died late last week from septic shock, is perhaps the most famous athlete and perhaps person in the world, not just because of his boxing exploits but because of his humanitarian efforts and his accessibility to his fans over the duration of his career.
There have already been two days of events paying tribute to Ali, who burst upon the scene in the 1960 Rome Olympics as 18-year-old Cassius Clay.
He won the world heavyweight championship four years later and shortly after that changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Such a decision in that era was highly controversial, as was Ali’s refusal in 1966 to enter the U.S. military in the midst of the Vietnam War.
Ali’s conviction for draft evasion was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971, after which he resumed his boxing career. Some of the sports most famous fights in history involved Ali against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Leon Spinks and Larry Holmes.
Ali brought poetry to the sport, literally and figuratively. He boasted he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” It was not uncommon for him to name his fights — the Thrilla in Manila, the Rumble in the Jungle — and it was not uncommon for him to not only predict when he would defeat an opponent, but to prove correct in those predictions.
Ali was a showman in every sense of the word, and a man who passed from controversial lightning rod in the 1960s to historic champion in the 1970s to beloved figure in the 1980s and beyond.
Ali struggled with Parkinson’s disease for the last 30 years of his life, but endured that battle with dignity and grace, inspiring many with his good humor and love for people.
That is all a part of Ali’s legacy, and those parts have been emphasized and re-emphasized — with good reason — since his death.
I understand why Ali is such a transformative figure to athletes, entertainers and every day people who mourn him as a counterculture hero and an eloquent voice for those denied a voice by circumstances like poverty and oppression.
But Ali was an extremely complex individual, with an even more complex legacy, a portion of which many have chosen to ignore and I am sure will shout down should anyone dare to mention other aspects of Ali’s personality that birth uncomfortable questions to confront in the aftermath of his death.
I wonder how a Vietnam War era U.S. Veteran feels about Ali if that veteran returned from Southeast Asia not only without anyone thanking them for their combat service to our country, but if they were labeled a baby killer, or something worse. As if anything could be worse.
Ali gave voice to and inflamed a movement that slurred brave men and women who believed in the cause of bringing freedom to the world.
If you, like me, decry the incivility in sports today, where athletes beat their chests to call attention to themselves and openly demean their opponents, Ali was the creator of that mindset with his oft-repeated, “I am the Greatest,” mantra.
It is incalculable how much the world-wide growth of Islam traces to Ali’s practice and endorsement of that religion. If you are a victim of domestic or world-wide terrorism, a Gold-Star mother, father or relative of a service man or woman killed or wounded in combat in the Middle East, are you able to fully embrace the fawning eulogies of Muhammad Ali?
Ali resorted to the worst kind of rhetoric when he branded Joe Frazier an, “Uncle Tom,” and a, “gorilla,” which held Frazier up to ridicule in the African American community. That’s the same Joe Frazier who lobbied president Richard Nixon to allow Ali to box again in the late 1960s. The same Joe Frazier who also lent Ali money when he could not make any in the ring.
All those things are part of Muhammad Ali’s legacy, too, but you won’t hear them mentioned because we like to do this sort of thing with every complex issue. We like to compartmentalize it into easily-digestable, conveniently-explained boxes.
But nothing complex is ever really like that.
And Muhammad Ali certainly wasn’t like that, either.