The list of professional athletes who exceeded their hype is short: Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky are among the precious few whose performances continually reset the bar of expectations higher than before.
Then there was Muhammad Ali, whose brilliance in the boxing ring was eclipsed only by his outsized persona and impact on American society.
Ali, who died Friday night at age 74, was the undisputed world heavyweight champion three times, and for years the undisputed face of U.S. pro sports. Indeed, at the height of his popularity in the mid-1970s, Ali reportedly was the most recognizable athlete on the planet. As much as he was admired for his knockout punches and fleet footwork — "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," as he famously described his skills — it was his gregarious, boastful personality that both enthralled and infuriated audiences and opponents, and which created a whole new standard for athletics. Sportsmanship often took a back seat to showmanship.
But Ali was anything but a shallow, self-promoting jock who ran his mouth a lot. Born Cassius Clay in the segregated city of Louisville, Kentucky, Ali in 1964 changed his name to embrace his new faith in Islam. It was a shocking move for such a high-profile athlete during the Civil Rights era when black Muslims were associated with radicalism. Many sports journalists initially refused to acknowledge his new identity and continued to refer to him by what Ali called his "slave name."
If there were any doubts that Ali was willing to pay a price for his convictions, they were erased in 1967 when he refused to be drafted into the U.S. Army, citing his pacifist religious beliefs and opposition to the war in Vietnam. Ali was arrested on charges of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles. He faced serving five years in prison until the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Ali's conviction on appeal in 1971.
Ali's stance on the draft remains controversial; some still consider him an unpatriotic draft-dodger. However, note that Ali didn't flee the country to avoid service. He expressed his principled opposition and was willing to accept the consequences, knowing it not only could cost him the prime of his boxing career, but also his freedom.
He returned to the ring after nearly four years of court battles and became more successful than ever before. He fought in some of the most famous boxing matches in history against such fabled opponents as Joe Frazier and George Foreman. "The Fight of the Century" (versus Frazier in 1971), the "Rumble in the Jungle" (versus Foreman in 1974) and the "Thrilla in Manila" rematch with Frazier in 1975 were cultural events that transcended sport.
Ali's impact on race in U.S. society is incalculable. After Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Ali was part of the second wave of African-American athletes who weren't content to play the humble, just-happy-to-be-here role white America expected of them. Ali, with his brashness, his trash-talking opponents and his rhyming taunts (which could be viewed as a precursor to hip-hop music), became a charismatic, inspiring symbol of black dignity and self-determination.
It's a testament to just how transformative Ali was that he went from being a black revolutionary in the '60s to a figure beloved by all races in the '70s and beyond. He led from the front, and the culture followed.
Alas, over the last 30 years Parkinson's disease robbed Ali of much of what made him so endearing: his athleticism and his gift for gab. Even as his public appearances declined, though, he remained larger than life — as he shall be in eternity.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD
Photo credit: Ian Ransley