If he was just a boxer, he'd be a legend.
If he was just a social activist, he'd be a cultural hero.
If he only had his way with words, he'd be a luminary.
Combined, he was the one and the only Muhammad Ali. A true world icon who inspired and amazed generations. Ali died on Friday from a respiratory issue and following a long battle with Parkinson's disease. While he may be gone, the legacy he left will live on for decades.
Ali is arguably the biggest sports icon in history. He was "The Greatest" for a reason, the rare individual who could outshine the grandiose stage of the Olympic Games and do it without even saying a word.
If you asked 100 people their favorite Muhammad Ali memory, you might get 100 different answers. Some may choose one of his many legendary fights. Others might recite any number of famous Ali quotes. Some will point to his impact on society. Different things about Ali may stand out to different people, but something about Ali will stand out to nearly everyone. He transcended sports and made an impact on the world that won't soon be forgotten.
Following his death, there has been an outpouring of words written about his life, his impact and his legacy. Here is just a sampling of the many must reads about the legendary Muhammad Ali.
Cassius started to box at 12, after his new $60 red Schwinn bicycle was stolen off a downtown street. He reported the theft to Joe Martin, a police officer who ran a boxing gym. When Cassius boasted what he would do to the thief when he caught him, Martin suggested that he first learn how to punch properly.
Cassius was quick, dedicated and gifted at publicizing a youth boxing show, "Tomorrow's Champions," on local television. He was soon its star.
Ali fought for more than two decades, but the world inside the ropes was never really large enough for the man in full. By chapters, Ali's life became so large and brassy, so charged with daring and devilment, so touched by his charm, his existential madness and the play of his mind, that prizefighting served as mere entertainment in the ever-expanding narrative that was his life. He not only was a showman endowed with a high order of charisma and commanding physical gifts, but he also owned a personality that flattered nearly all who met him.
It must be said, first of all, that Ali was, just as he used to boast, the Greatest of All Time (which in later years became the typically playful acronym — GOAT — that branded his projects). He won the heavyweight title three times, in an era of ungodly competition. Neither Joe Louis nor Rocky Marciano faced so many dangerous fighters still in their primes. Ali’s trilogy with Joe Frazier provided enough drama in the first bout alone to be deemed mythic. Then there was the fight with George Foreman, when Ali, many thought, was being sent to his doom but instead invented an almost comical escape, the rope-a-dope. Not to mention bouts with Sonny Liston, Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, killers all. In his heyday, at least, Ali fought not for survival but for his own entertainment. He presented his ring art as a kind of jazz, fully improvisational, performed to the whimsical score in his head.
Ali, quickly: a prizefighter, all silk and all steel, the best of his time, maybe the best of all time. An entertainer and comic, a preacher and politician. He left his mother’s Baptist church for the Nation of Islam, where he walked with Malcolm X. He faced down the U.S. government when it wanted him in prison for refusing induction into its army. Long reviled for good reason, it was for good reason that he became revered. Presidents invited him to the White House. George H.W. Bush sent him on a CIA mission of sorts and Jimmy Carter made him an envoy to Africa. Leonid Brezhnev embraced him at the Kremlin. He traded jokes with the Dalai Lama. He lit the torch opening the 1996 Olympics. Beautiful at rest, breathtaking in motion, Muhammad Ali was as near to living flame as a man can get.
Ali’s athletic feats were outsized, not least because they were performed at the risk of terrible physical harm. Watch the third fight with Joe Frazier, in Manila. The two men nearly destroy each other. Ali admitted afterward that it was the "closest I’ve come to death." And Frazier, who despised Ali for mocking him, for calling him a gorilla and an Uncle Tom, said, "I hit him with punches that would have knocked a building down." Ali, who had won after Frazier’s cornermen determined that he was too swollen, too blinded to go on, admitted that both he and Frazier were never the same after that third fight. "We went to Manila as champions, Joe and me, and we came back as old men," he said.
But my strongest memory of that night applies to a bitter-sweet epitaph offered by an elderly Afro-American men's room attendant at 4 a.m. as he handed me a towel.
"Did you bet the fight?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said. "I bet on Ali."
"Pardon me for asking, but why?"
"Why? Why? Because he's Muhammad Ali, that's why. Mister, I'm 72 years old. I owe the man for giving me my dignity."
Of course, his gift of gab was legendary, but so it was for many athletes. And, certainly, he was the right figure for his time: an outspoken voice in the fight for civil rights at a time when a critical mass had emerged against the status quo, a voice for peace in an era choking with war and nuclear brinkmanship, and a television-friendly face at a time when television was reaching its saturation point around the globe. But even adding up all of his tangible qualities, which were unquestionably immense, Ali was still something significantly more than the sum of his parts. He was a force of nature.