Wednesday, June 8, 2016
The truth of the matter is that the word "great" should be reserved for something out-of-the-ordinary, something exceptional, something rare or not previously experienced. Otherwise, the thing in question should be called "good", "nice", "satisfactory" or something equally mundane or ordinary. We should refrain from calling something "great" simply because it temporarily pleases or satisfies us.
But, on rare occasions, an event or person arises in our consciousness and experience that is truly unusual or exceptional. When it's a person, we view the individual as heroic, gifted and utterly beyond the scope of normal human endeavour. Such a person was Muhammad Ali.
Ali's life story is well known and does not need to be repeated here. Instead, I will use a few lines to express my admiration and affection for the man.
When he first burst onto the scene, after knocking our Sonny Liston, I was not a fan. I was only a young boy, about seven or eight years old, but I loved sports and was a boxing fan because it was a major sport in those days and because my dad loved boxing. When Cassius Clay, as Ali was known in those days, beat Liston, my dad was furious. Not because Clay was the new champion of the world, but because Clay defied all the established norms of behaviour for public figures. He was brash, he was vocal, he was cocky, he was loud. The fact that he was black added to the backlash. Now, I need to be careful here. My dad was not a racist by any means, but the idea of an "uppity black" rubbed all of white society the wrong way. I was strongly influenced by this, and had an innocently negative opinion of Clay. The fact that a black man was heavyweight champion of the world was not the issue: Clay had just beaten Liston, also a black man. My dad admired Liston and other great black fighters, such as Floyd Patterson and the previous "greatest", Joe Louis. But Clay was different and it was his mouth and cockiness that made him unappealing.
As time went by, of course, our opinions changed. As Clay morphed into Ali, as his career took all its bizarre twists and turns, and as the man grew into legend as a boxer, advocate for civil rights, and as a "warrior for peace", my initial naïve dislike grew into admiration and then complete hero worship. I only saw him once, well past his prime and as he was sinking into premature old age from the Parkinsons disease caused by the trauma of numerous fights and, undoubtedly, stress from his public life. It was at an Argos game many years ago, when Ali was honoured for all his humanitarian work. I stood and applauded enthusiastically when many people, including former opponents, lauded him. He was stooped, shaking, but completely aware of what was happening. It remains, for me, one of my own wonderful personal memories.
But the thing I would like to express as my own testimony of his true greatness is this: Muhammad Ali was a man who taught the world that it had choices to make. And that those choices are sometimes difficult, harsh and enduring. But, if choices are based on fundamentally sound and right principles, if choices are not merely expedients that make the tough things in life "go away", if choices are made from a person's heart and done for good reasons, then the difficult, harsh, and enduring pain and backlash can be borne and carried with noble and heroic honour.
Ali did this and more in his life. I will never forget him. I will never really live according to his example. But I will try. And, for this, Muhammad Ali will always be, for me, "the greatest."