Muhammad Ali’s vehicle was boxing, and great goodness was he beyond fabulous. But his calling always was infinitely higher. He was born to serve the nation and all of its peoples, and then the world and all of humanity, with its many shapes and forms and loves and hates.
There were many legendary figures in the 20th Century, and none towered with the natural elegance and bristling brio of and sheer incandescence of Ali. Not Jackie Robinson. Not Franklin Roosevelt. Not Martin Luther King. Not John Kennedy or even Barack Obama, whose presence in many ways has served a similar purpose.
Which was, of course, to make us confront the best and worst of ourselves. To search our souls and see what we would find and how we would react.
Ali spoke at us in his 20s and then to us for us for the rest of his life, which ended Friday at age 74. To trace his life is to understand that his purpose was so much higher than the rest of us. He sacrificed in ways most of us never could fathom, standing up to an acutely corrupt system, showing us that real principle comes without compromise.
The system came at Ali, came at him hard, and he defeated it just as decisively as he once punished Ernie Terrell for disrespecting his faith.
To know Ali’s journey is to comprehend that he took it so that we may learn and prosper. He is America’s Mandela, a symbol of grace in the face of injustice, with the strength to overcome even the most virulent challenges thrown his way.
Adored and despised, Ali never stopped to seek the approval of those who wanted a piece of his hide. He was a complicated man who never patronized those he realized were ready to join him in his quest, any quest, because they believed it had to be righteous.
Ali was our nation’s most polarizing figure during the turbulent 1960s, when we as a nation started straining, often violently, through so many generations of racial and gender and lifestyle inequality. And yet no one has been more beloved over the past quarter century, if not more.
Who else has spanned the broad spectrum, coming full circle with such dignity and force?
What might have been Ali’s influence on this world had Parkinson’s not stolen his voice, his capacity to captivate us with his words? One can’t help but speculate if his physical deterioration made him somehow safer and more acceptable to those who had resented him for simply living his fundamental truth.
From his extraordinary prowess in the ring, in which he seemed to land from outer space, to his gift of gab, his ability to pose serious issues with a twinkle in his eye to his affinity for touching people on every continent, Ali was the closest thing in our lifetimes to magic in human form.
Dr. King, who himself did plenty of sacrificing for his own noble cause, brought forth his vision, his dream, articulating it in perhaps the most memorable speech of the century.
Ali’s dream was articulated daily, not always properly, but always honestly. He liberated us to chase our own dreams and to believe without doubt that we could achieve them. He was, more than any other, a solitary sociopolitical movement, not so much a revolution but an evolution -– and always a revelation.
That is, at bottom, why we so respect him. He always gave it to us straight, without regard for what it might do for his popularity. If the news anchor Walter Cronkite often could be described as “the most trusted man in America,” could we trust Ali any less after we had seen all his pain and glory?
Which brings me to a true story that reads like fantasy.
In the year 1987, I was a young sports writer at the Oakland Tribune, not long removed from covering Bay Area high schools. My editor, the late Bob Valli, assigned me to several secondary beats, one of which was boxing. Yes! I’d grown up watching Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and then Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Roberto Duran.
There also were nights when he read copy and wrote headlines and answered telephones. On one such night, I received a call from Henry Winston, a local boxing promoter that knew some of everybody, everywhere. He asked if I wanted to have dinner with “the champ.” I laughed and asked: “Which champ?”
Henry then explained that he was with a small group sharing a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant a few blocks from the Trib. He was, he said, with Ali. Now buying his tale, I asked the night sports editor, John Simmonds, if I could join Henry and Ali and a few others at this restaurant.
I hopped in my car and drove toward the place and upon turning onto the street, I saw a limo with personalized plates that read, “Champn,” I had not been misled.
I walked in and, seduced by the aroma of garlic and butter, quickly recognized the most famous man on the planet as part of a group of five or six seated at a large table. I was invited to join them. No notepad or tape recorder, just conversation and observation.
Ali did magic tricks for the kids in the restaurant. His speech had slowed and his movements were almost painfully deliberate. His eyes were more filled with love and life than any I’d ever seen. His unmatchable charisma had not dimmed.
That night is my single greatest sports memory of my career -– and my life. How can it get any better than sitting at the dinner table with Muhammad Ali?
Ali was “The Greatest.” He also was the greatest of the greats of our time. We’re better off for having had him in our lifetimes.