They’re burying Muhammad Ali on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was born and raised, after a Muslim prayer service on Thursday. Fittingly, people of all faiths are welcome to attend the prayer service for the man who, as his spokesman pointed out, “spoke of inclusiveness his entire life.”
Inclusive, The Champ was. Also bad, brave and beautiful. Doggerel-spouting but sharp as a knife. That is to say incisive. Larger than life. Imperfect, contradictory, but brilliant in and out of the ring. Most of all crusading. Black and proud. A true voice for the voiceless.
“Another day at the office.” Thus he proclaimed 40 years ago in announcing to ringsiders his arrival at the ring to fight the man he had called a gorilla. But it was no typical workday for The Champ, it turned out, for it consisted of 14 of the most vicious rounds ever fought in boxing. It was, a New York Daily News sportswriter would later report, every bit the promised “Thrilla in Manila.”
If there was a fight that would define the life and times of Muhammad Ali, it would be this, the third and final encounter with Joe Frazier, described by many as the greatest heavyweight fight of all time. In 14 brutal rounds at the Araneta Coliseum, The Champ, arrogant and condescending, became all at once benevolent and compassionate, humbled and chastened by the unyielding stand of Smokin‘ Joe.
“Fighting Joe Frazier is like dying,” he said in a postfight interview. Frazier would not fight again and was bitter to the end, but it was the biggest compliment any prizefighter can receive from an opponent.
In 1967, the brash young fighter claimed conscientious-objector status and refused to be drafted to fight in America’s war in Vietnam. “I ain’t got no trouble with them Vietcong,” he declared. “It ain’t right. They never called me ‘nigger.’” And he suffered for his principle: He was stripped of his title, fined $10,000, sentenced to prison, and forced to wait out prime years. He became the poster boy for the antiwar movement in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, and was both hated and loved for his strong stand on racial, religious and political issues. He pushed the envelope, raised the bar, spoke up when it mattered (which makes, say, Tiger Woods seem like a wuss).
Said Cleveland Cavalier Channing Frye of Muhammad Ali: “He just gave the black community a lot of courage and changed our mindset: ‘Hey, you can be a superstar and not be quiet. You can voice your opinion and be controversial and still be a champion.’”
After bequeathing the heavyweight mantle to the likes of Larry Holmes and a succession of lesser lights, and the money title to such diverse sports moneymakers as Woods, Michael Jordan and Floyd Mayweather, The Champ became a preacher of peace, spirituality and family values. And many were willing to gloss over his record of dalliances and indiscretions; to his adoring fans, he could do no wrong. His biographer Dave Kindred, as quoted by The New York Times, wrote: “We forgive Muhammad Ali his excesses because we see in him the child in us, and if he is foolish or cruel, if he is arrogant, if he is outrageously in love with his reflection, we forgive him because we no more can condemn a rainbow for dissolving into the dark. Rainbows are born of thunderstorms, and Muhammad Ali is both.”
Who can forget him as, frail, slow and shaking, he struggled to accomplish the task at hand during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, one of his last major public appearances? Millions all over the world held their breath and struggled with him as he persisted. After a few anxious moments, he managed to light the flame and send it creeping up to the Olympic cauldron that exploded into a spectacular ball of fire. Despite the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, The Champ showed that he could still light up the world.
Muhammad Ali died last Friday in Phoenix, Arizona. He was 74 and ailing. The Louisville Lip is silent finally, but the flame he lit for the sports world and beyond—for peace and international understanding and for racial, political and religious equality—will endure. As will the world’s memory of him, the images of him in his youth, in his prime, in his postfight life: powerful, colorful, inimitable, the genuine article, for-all-time, quite simply The Greatest.
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