“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours;my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
When I heard about Muhammad Ali being close to death last night, my initial reaction was one of gratitude. Gratitude that his 32 year ordeal with the horrors of Parkinson’s disease was close to an end, and gratitude that the great man could finally get some peace.
An hour later, the news came in that Ali had died from respiratory failure at the age of 74. Late at night and at a gathering with a group of friends, I had to take a moment to digest the fact that my childhood idol was no longer. It hit me harder than I had expected, and despite never having met the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, I had to take a walk outside to be alone for a while.
Through obsessively watching his fights and reading everything I could about him as a teenager and young adult, Ali was more than just an icon to me — he was the embodiment of what I thought it meant to be a man. He was a fighter and a poet, a courageous activist and a gentle natured giant. His parting felt like a family member dying, an irrational response but one I had no way of controlling. Ali was dead, and so too was a part of me.
There is not much I can add to the thousands of tributes flooding the internet, the accolades expressed by our leaders and the tributes from fellow athletes and celebrities. Ali was a great, great man both inside the ring and outside of it — the best heavyweight who ever lived, and a fearless dissident who refused to fight in the Vietnam war, and stood up for his people in a time of tremendous political unrest.
Ali fought wars in the ring against opponents who would have run through the best heavyweights of the modern era. He went to battle with them all — from the monstrous Sonny Liston, to the ferocious Joe Frazier and the inhumanly strong George Foreman. And he beat them, defying the odds on many occasions and enduring horrific punishment along the way. Ali was a supremely gifted athlete with unbelievable reflexes, coordination and speed. His ingenuity in the ring was truly breathtaking, and as he aged, his extraordinary intelligence and guile enabled him to continue beating the best men in his division. To call Ali courageous would almost be an insult — he was a warrior, and a man whose bravery will echo in eternity.
But for me, it wasn’t the sporting achievements that defined him as a man. It was the irrepressible nature of his personality that shone through during times of great difficulty — both in and out of the ring. Ali was never afraid to be himself, and as a black man in the 1960’s and 70’s, his supreme self confidence represented a huge threat to the white power structure in America. As he beat back challengers in the ring, he fought with a country that had enslaved his ancestors and continued to brutalize those with darker skins around the world. Just as Ali danced around the likes of Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, and George Chuvalo, he outwitted journalists and challenged white audiences to understand reality he perceived — a black reality that society had ignored, suppressed and committed horrendous acts of violence against.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” Ali told the press when asked about why he refused to go to Vietnam. “Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Of course there was a darker side to Ali’s religious and political beliefs — his long relationship with the Nation of Islam, his racist rhetoric against white people and the awful way in which he treated Joe Frazier are all part of his complex history. Ali was no saint, and his transgressions should never be sanitized or re-written. But they should be taken in context given the time he grew up in and the enormous pressure he faced as a young black man in a heavily racialized America. His message may have been a bitter pill for white America to swallow, but it was one the country needed, despite its imperfection.
Ali softened with age and moved away from his more radical beliefs, and in doing so became a globally beloved figure. He was recognized all around the world, and has generally regarded as the most important sporting figure of all time. Despite the progressively degenerative symptoms of his disease, Ali maintained his sense of humor and deep love for people of all walks of life till the very end. According to those close to him, Ali would give his time to anyone who wanted it — regularly missing flights while signing autographs for adoring fans at airports, and giving much of his fortune away to charitable causes.
“People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone,” Ali once said. “Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, the Beatles, and my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”
No, he was more than that.
Because we realized what we had when he was still here, and had to watch him suffer terribly. And so his parting is not a time to be sad, it is a time to celebrate the life of one of humanity’s greatest sons.
Rest In Peace champ.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.