Although I have never been a fan of boxing, my father was a great enthusiast of the sport and a huge fan of Ali. (Like Jordan, no one ever had to say "Muhammad Ali" to know who you were talking about. He was always just Ali.) Growing up, I listened to my father many times recount Ali's fights and particular defining moments of his career elaborating on his style using terms I would only later understand such as "rope a dope" (a term I loved hearing because of its rhyme) and "lightning fast."
My father told stories of becoming an usher as a young man at auditoriums in Los Angeles just so that he could watch boxing matches on closed-circuit TV that he couldn't afford tickets to. Most often Ali was the protagonist. Other fighters such as Frazier and Foreman were represented in his stories, but in my recollection they played the antagonists in his stories. My father always said Foreman had the most powerful punch of all time. After Ali's death, my father relayed one of his favorite stories regarding Ali's fight with Foreman in Zaire: "Foreman said that during the fight he hit Ali with as hard a punch as he had ever hit anyone -- and, yes, he was a devastating puncher -- and Ali said to him: 'Is that all you've got, George?' Foreman said he thought to himself, 'yeah, that's about it.'"
My father gave me his old heavy leather boxing gloves when I was about 8. I kept them in my room as artifacts foreign to my experience or desires. My father tried to teach me to box, but I never saw the point. Why would I fight someone or hit him? For my father, it was the epitome of being a man: Standing up for yourself, conquering fear and not letting other people intimidate you. (I never understood why becoming a "man" was so important; weren't those same attributes equally admirable traits for women?) So boxing became another way my father and I were different -- different goals, different motivations, different world views.
However, I have been aware of Muhammad Ali my entire life. I love sports, and Muhammad Ali was a prominent figure in and, as I later learned, out of the ring. When Muhammad Ali died last week, I reflected on what I actually knew of and felt about him. As I disclaimed above, I am not a boxing expert and, further, support banning the sport, but in my reflection I began to hear my father's stories again. My thoughts were his words interspersed with a slideshow of images of Ali from newspapers or from watching him on TV as a youngster.
In mentally recounting my father's stories and my memory bank of film clips, it soon became obvious to me that Muhammad Ali completely redefined an entire sport. When you think of any boxer before Ali they appear stiff, strong and intimidating. Like a lightning bolt, Cassius Clay, cum Muhammad Ali, bursts on the scene with a quickness, agility and power unlike any boxer before or, I believe, ever.
Here was a guy literally dancing around the ring, a term I doubt was ever used to describe boxers before him, and exhibiting his signature lightning-fast shuffle of his feet -- divert your eyes for a second and you were going down. He then invented "rope a dope,” literally with his back against the ropes, letting other boxers tire from punching his body running the risk of lowering their fatiguing arms for a split second to realize their mistake too late.
He was brash too and infinitely quotable. Growing up I watched him verbally spar with Cosell playing his sidekick and he impressed me with a confidence I didn't possess. He knew he was the greatest and wasn't afraid to say it. Or capitalize from it, and why not? I always remembered the TV commercial for aftershave that ran long before I ever used a razor:
Wow, this guy is saying something I would never say. Bigger than life. In the articles and Facebook posts after his death, I learned that this quote was a commercialization of one of his famous quotes, which was in turn, actually written by one of his close friends and advisors. But no matter, that was Ali. I also read he said, "If you dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize." Now, that is tough.
Few athletes have redefined their sport. Muhammad Ali did exactly this with his style, ability and brashness. But in time, he became larger than boxing -- with exalted excellence, he championed larger causes to become a cultural icon. My kids have never seen Ali fight, but they know he was a boxer and bravely faced Parkinson's. He became larger than boxing and larger than life, a status that results when a person takes leadership of issues larger than them and uses their status to advance those issues.
In short, not only was he the greatest boxer of all times, but one of the greatest athletes of all time. And more.
Whether the sport caused his Parkinson's disease or not may never be known. What is absolutely apparent is that his suffered publicly with grace and dignity as he championed for issues larger than himself. This was extraordinarily represented when, in 1996, he with his body erect, left arm and head shaking, his right arm held steady the Olympic torch, both arms momentarily stilled as he grasped the torch with two hands, releasing it again to his still right hand before lowering it to light the Olympic torch.
When he won a boxing Olympic gold medal in Rome in 1960, he had yet to define the sport. By the time he lit the torch that night in Atlanta in a stadium filled with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," he stood erect with dignity and grace as an example of the Olympic spirit. In that moment, whether you were a fan of boxing or not, we felt we were witnessing a man, who had been larger than a sport, with great courage define the Olympic spirit. We all recognized and felt his enduring greatness.
When my youngest son asked me if Ali was the greatest I responded, without hesitation, there was no doubt. My father and I will never share the love of boxing, but in hindsight, I clearly recognize his admiration for Ali.