The greatest as a boxer? As a controversial figure? As a poet? As an egomaniac? As a human being?
Was Muhammad Ali really the greatest, as he so often told the world he most definitely was?
As a boxer?
While we claim no expertise on that most combative of sports, the sheer fact of his becoming the first three-time World Heavyweight Champion suggests an affirmative answer. The sportscasters and writers say that he was likely the best ever to enter the ring. So did most of his opponents. Who are we to argue?
As a controversial figure?
Ali’s decision to convert to Islam, more specifically to join the original Nation of Islam, part of the militant Black Muslim movement which was indeed controversial in the racially charged climate of 1960s America — and his decision to refuse the draft and express opposition to the Vietnam War — qualify him, at least, as one of the most controversial figures of his time.
As a poet?
Most famous for his “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” self-description, Ali’s poetry ranged from childish rhyme to remarkably adept wordplay. Check out “Last Night I Had a Dream,” Ali’s poem about his impending fight against George Foreman, the next time you’re online. While the spirits of Byron and Emily Dickenson need not worry about being knocked off their poetic pedestals, Ali was able to convey braggadocio, humor and lyricism with his verse — which, let’s face it, is better than most of the rest of us.
As an egomaniac?
In this category, “the greatest” most assuredly was the greatest. Few have been more comfortable in the spotlight than Ali; few have so coveted — and successfully drawn — public attention than the man who never missed an opportunity to call himself beautiful. But there was also a distinct method to Ali’s egomania. “At home I am a nice guy but I don’t want the world to know,” he told a reporter in 1963. “Humble people, I’ve found, don’t get very far.”
As a human being?
A strong measure of Ali’s true character was the courage with which he lived with Parkinson’s disease, which afflicted him since 1984 and was likely a result of the repeated blows to the head he endured during his boxing career.
While it gradually limited his ability to speak, walk and perform many manual functions, Ali did his best to keep up with the demands of his celebrity, devoting himself to many worthwhile charities and causes and, remarkably, managed to preserve a good measure of the charm and humor that had always been part of his persona. While everyone who struggles with Parkinson’s is “the greatest,” the way Ali responded was consistent with his sense of outreach and responsibility, and even with his image.
If anyone had any doubts about Ali’s essential humanity, they should have been wholly resolved this week when a news brief arrived describing how Ali in 2002 publicly appealed to Islamic terrorists to spare the life of Daniel Pearl, the American Jewish journalist they had kidnapped and ultimately murdered.
“Treat him as you would wish all Muslims to be treated by others,” wrote Ali. “Daniel should not become another victim of the ongoing conflict.”
History reveals that Ali’s appeal was ignored by the murderers, of course, but the champion’s compassion didn’t end there. At a private memorial service for Pearl held in Los Angeles, Ali showed up, slowly entered the room, clearly showing the effects of his medical condition, and shared his grief with the bereaved family.
The greatest human being? Who knows? But great?
Copyright © 2016 by the Intermountain Jeiwsh