Muhammad Ali: Once a hero, now a legend

The funeral took place last Friday of the former three-time world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, the self-proclaimed and for many, ‘The Greatest of all Time’, in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.

It fulfilled its promise as a most watched television event, fittingly. And even though it is an invidious task to try to add to the multiple eloquent and moving tributes already paid to the man who transformed and transcended his sport at one and the same time, it would be remiss of us to allow the fallen legend to be laid to rest without comment.

No less an orator than U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to recognize the futility of attempting to come up with anything new when he was moved to riff on the champion’s own famous declaration, after he had dramatically upset the fearsome Sonny Liston to win the world heavyweight title on Feb. 25, 1964: “Ali shook up the world,” said Obama, adding, “And the world is better for it.”

That simple, succinct statement suitably summarizes the significance and impact of Muhammad Ali.

We ourselves, in marking the icon’s 70th birthday in 2012, opined in an editorial, “His greatness … goes beyond boxing” and concluded thus:

“We celebrate, this week, not so much Muhammad Ali, the athlete who made his sport a thing of awesome beauty even at its most destructive, but Muhammad Ali, the man who stood up for the courage of his convictions, who stood up to the Man, the Establishment and its distorted value system, to pronounce his pride in his religion and his colour.

“Here is a man who not only literally fought the good fight, but also personalized the struggle of African Americans and people of all colours, everywhere, to be treated with respect, not just for their athletic prowess or a particular skill, but for the beauty of their minds and their rights as human beings.

“Muhammad Ali transcends boxing in a way that no boxer before or since has done. He transcends the very notion of sport itself and invests it with a human dignity and worth too rarely seen in the professional era. Therein lies his true greatness. That is why he is so admired and loved.”

We stand by those words and believe that is why, even though, as in every sport, the arguments will rage for eternity as to who is the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, because of his transcendental power, could be justifiably and overwhelmingly considered ‘The Greatest of all Time’.

Moreover, as the life and deeds of Muhammad Ali were celebrated in Louisville and around the world, we see no reason to change the present tense to the past.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, the boxer, born Jan. 17, 1942, may have died on Sept. 24, 1964, only to be reborn, phoenix-like, as Muhammad Ali, the Muslim champion of the ring, champion of the anti-Vietnam War campaign, champion of the civil rights movement, champion of the underdog and champion of dignity, peace and humanity.

Muhammad Ali may have died physically in, ironically, Phoenix, Arizona, but the people’s champion, lives on in the hearts and minds of those whose lives he touched across the world. More prosaically but critical to the enduring appeal of his legacy, he lives on in song, verse, countless articles, books, photographs, films and, on YouTube and the Internet.

In 2012, we noted that he was “still only a man, all too human in his foibles and fallibility.” But his humanity brought him closer to people and made him all the greater.

In this respect, we once again turn to Obama for the mots justes: “He wasn’t perfect, of course. For all his magic in the ring, he could be careless with his words and full of contradictions as his faith evolved. But his wonderful, infectious, even innocent spirit ultimately won him more fans than foes – maybe because in him, we hoped to see something of ourselves.”