For three consecutive years in college, I bought the above as a poster at an annual fair on campus. The first two met their ends in predictable fashion, either tearing irreparably from the wall one night while I was asleep or falling victim to the typical antics of undergraduate dorm life. The third couldn’t handle the unexpected transition from average resident to resident assistant and ended up in a garbage can, probably next to some Bob Marley counterparts and cans of new formula Four Loko.
The image, of course, is one of the most iconic of the twentieth century, something not even its ubiquity in male collegiate dorm rooms can ruin. In it, Sonny Liston looks up helplessly at the heavyweight champion of the world, a Kentuckian formerly called Cassius Clay whose brash demeanor and furious wordplay underscored a revolutionary style of boxing for the heavyweight division. Muhammad Ali, who has passed away at 74, made a habit of shocking the world, precisely as he said he would.
As a boxer, Ali was great. Whether he was “the greatest,” as he himself often proclaimed, is a matter of criteria and opinion, but he certainly deserves a seat at the table from an objective standpoint. An Olympic gold medalist for the United States in 1960, the erstwhile Cassius Clay had swift feet and an incredible attention to detail, always seeming to push his opponent to the absolute edge both physically and – he knew it – psychologically. His footwork is poetic; you could write stanzas describing the shuffling blur meant to throw off his opponents, and many have.
When he joined the Nation of Islam and befriended Elijah Muhammad in 1964, his edge was even sharper, the chip on his shoulder becoming a moon. Growing up a black man in the postwar, pre-Civil Rights American South was hard enough; becoming a Muslim while under the brightest national spotlight seemed only to push him more, with his activism in retirement indicative of his need for acceptance on behalf of the people he represented: all of them, not just boxers, black men or Muslims.
He spoke with an economy equivalent to his foot speed, words racing out of his mouth like a pack of cattle overrunning a corral. The puns and metaphors he coined and threw around casually might have made him a court jester, some kind of Beatnik clown hero, if not for the fact that he could topple any opponent before him. Have you ever heard him speak? Would you want to fight a guy who seems to believe he is capable of turning a planet into a group of asteroids without so much as a courtesy pounding of the gloves?
Ali didn’t become a cultural icon because he was a great boxer. Rocky Marciano and Jack Johnson were great boxers, but they didn’t protest unpopular wars by invoking conscientious objection, nor did they popularize the cadence and thought processes behind what would give rise to hip-hop. Ali has more in common with Bob Dylan than with Sugar Ray Leonard – a set of gloves is just that, except in the right pair of hands.
As far as deaths go – and it’s terrible to say this but is nevertheless admittedly the truth – this one isn’t terribly shocking, particularly when set against the others who have left us in 2016. Ali suffered for many years, in public and in private, but his strength to outlast many of his contemporaries after fighting during a time when we didn’t know much, or care to know much, about what repeated, direct blows to the head could do to the brain allowed us to honor him and place him in a certain context.
Not that he was ever meant to be placed at all, of course. He would do the placing, thank you very much, and he’ll be right at the top. Mount Rushmore-like discussions are inherently stupid and wasteful, but in a time when you can Google any objective fact in seconds, they are perhaps the last vestiges of classic bar rhetoric we have left. When we look back on the twentieth century, it is hard not think that Ali will forever remain one of its foremost figures, a man who used boxing as a platform for something greater.
In dorm rooms across this country and many others, Ali stands to remain a cultural touchstone. I just hope the people waking up to Ali looking down on them bother to read up on why he is what he is. Turning American society into his own speed bag and settling it only when he felt satisfied is what draws us to Ali. With his white shorts, white shoes but a decidedly non-white conscience, which was for the better, maybe he was right all along. Maybe he was the Greatest.