Twenty years ago, I didn’t think he’d make it.
Twenty years ago, The Greatest proved me wrong. And in doing so, he brought tears to my supposedly jaded eyes. Just when I thought there was nothing else Muhammad Ali could do to make me like him all the more, the night he lit the Olympic torch at the beginning of the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta made me take note, once again, of the greatness of The Greatest.
I remember watching on television, worried that he might not make it up the platform, watching the tremors the Parkinson’s disease had wreaked upon this once great physical specimen, the champion boxer. As he drew closer, it was as if I was trying to will him from long distance to make it all the way. It’s easy for me to say now, that I never should have doubted. Not with The Greatest. Writing these words and remembering that moment has actually brought those long buried tears back to my eyes.
I was out last night when I got the news that Muhammad Ali had passed away at the age of 74. For me, in a year filled with losses of those we considered great, this was the largest loss of them all. He meant so much to my people, but he meant a lot to a lot of people, regardless of race. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate him all the more—way more than just a great boxer, but as a great man. When I spread the news, the room I was in became silent for a brief moment.
When I was younger, I was in possession of a book about Muhammad Ali and his life. Not just the boxing career-a man in full. It may have been Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times, but I’m not sure. All I know is I wish I knew where that book is now. I would love to leaf through that book, even now. Back then I loved the pictures, but I also loved reading the story about the man. How he won the titles, but also stood up for what he believed in. How he became so revered and so famous, from being so reviled and despised in his stance against being drafted to go fight in Vietnam. How he lost his title, and couldn’t fight for three years in his prime. And how his resilience found him winning the title back from George Foreman.
Yes, he talked a lot. My mother didn’t like him talking, and I think that’s where I got the notion that talent should speak for itself. But I didn’t mind his talking, because time after time he backed it up. I was watching the night he took the heavyweight title back from Leon Spinks, hoping that would be it for him. But like a lot of athletes, he hung around too long, and the punishment took its toll on him, ultimately resulting in Parkinson’s disease. And as great as he was inside the boxing ring, he was much greater outside of it. A man to be revered, honored, respected and loved. I’m so lucky that I was able to share the planet with such a man.
A far better man I don’t think I will ever see.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.
He is The Greatest, Muhammad Ali.