Nobody compared to him. Not in my lifetime. Not in the latter half of the 20th century, when Ali was the baddest man on the planet as heavyweight champion of the world. He was a revolutionary figure who refused to serve in the Vietnam War. He was an African American who wouldn’t dance to anyone’s tune. He was an unflinching figure who wouldn’t bow to American racism or cultural convention. He wouldn’t be what you wanted him to be, but dared to be who he wanted to be.
The news of his death Friday night left me weeping over loss and memories. I was drawn back to when I was but a child, a wide-eyed bystander to his greatness, when I stayed up late for the first time in my life to listen to an Ali fight on the radio. It was March 8, 1971. I was 8, innocent and unaware in San Jose.
I listened to a fight, a sporting event 3,000 miles away, and found much more. It marked the first time I opposed my beloved dad. Papa rooted for Joe Frazier, Ali’s opponent. Frazier symbolized establishment America, even though he grew up poor and black, just like Ali. Yet, Ali spoke to a different generation.
Frazier was inarticulate and loyal to American ideas of patriotism and racial order. Ali rhymed, roared and rebelled. “Rumble, young man! Rumble,” he said. He refused to serve in the military to kill the Viet Cong he said had done nothing to him or people of color like him.
“I am America,” he would say later. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
That stance against the war had cost Ali his prime three years as heavyweight champion, a title Frazier had claimed while Ali was suspended from fighting for claiming conscientious objector status.
A New York state court ruled Ali could re-enter the ring, setting up “The Fight of the Century,” as it was billed, a fight for athletic dominance teeming with cultural significance.
A nation hung on every punch thrown, every move made, every word describing them from Madison Square Garden in New York City on that March night in 1971.
If you were for Frazier, you were for serving in the war. You were for the forces that had stripped Ali of his title in 1967, when Vietnam was becoming the focal point of American civil disobedience.
One side rallied to the call that the war had to be illegitimate if one of the most powerful cultural forces in America, the heavyweight champion of the world, was against it.
Others weren’t ready to accept that, and in 1971 the great force of misplaced American patriotism drew the dividing line and set the stage.
If you were for Ali against Frazier, you were for the protest. You were against the war. You were against America’s rigid racial order. You were with the hippies and the protesters and the rebels who wouldn’t lie down or go along.
I was only 8. What did I know? At that point, I knew nothing of this, or maybe sensed only a shadow it cast. But I knew I loved Ali – I loved his electrifying skills as the greatest athlete of my (then-short) lifetime. I loved his mouth and his audacity to be himself. I loved his looks, his courage, his humor.
I loved him more than my father’s world view, which up to that point was my world view, until Ali taught me otherwise.
Ali lost that night in 1971, but he won me over. He would become the most compelling figure of the 1970s, back when boxing was still the greatest spectacle in American sport. His fights and life paralleled the rise of TV sports, and we watched him win, change, lose, win again.
On an October night in 1974, I was 11 and home with my mom and younger brother – my dad was working the graveyard shift at a fruit cannery in San Jose. The networks interrupted programming to announce that Ali was the champion again.
He had beaten George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,” rope-a-doped his way to win the title fight in Kinshasa, Zaire, in Africa.
It was almost 11 p.m., and I ran screaming through my house with joy and tears in my eyes. No one thought Ali at age 32 could win the fight. He was too old, Foreman was too strong, and yet Ali prevailed. He was stronger than the brutal, younger Foreman. He was stronger than American conventional wisdom that wanted him silenced. He was stronger than the bigots, the America-first crowd, the people who normally called the shots until Ali proved otherwise.
With each fight and each triumph, Ali would transcend sports as a cultural figure at the forefront of a movement that questioned right and wrong in America. His proclamations that he was “the greatest” changed how Americans expressed themselves. Out went old conventions of humility and modesty. In came self-expression marked by bravado. But Ali was even more than that. He was a person of color who was beautiful and reveled in proclaiming his beauty to the world.
In a violent culture forged by iconography of warriors and war heroes, Ali was the black man – the descendant of slaves – who could not be beaten in contests of athleticism or elocution.
He would tell critical questioners that he could beat them physically and intellectually – and he did.
He couldn’t be silenced.
And we witnessed as he became part of the American television culture and rose as an indispensable man of our times.
His skills dulled. His reign as heavyweight champion and fighter ended as most do, sadly, tarnished. But he was not beaten down. By the conclusion of the 1970s, Ali had become unbeatable outside the ring. To my generation and the generation after me, Ali became bigger than sports – bigger than politics, bigger than culture. Despite his personal flaws, his failed marriages, his mistreatment of worthy opponents like Frazier, his occasional and stupid anti-Semitic comments, Ali’s ring brilliance and moral courage elevated him as a figure as beloved in the 1990s as he was hated in the 1960s.
He beat the greatest opponents of all – American racism and conventional wisdom.
I’m 53 now, and in my lifetime I’ve seen popular culture evolve from Archie Bunker to Donald Trump. I remember black-and-white TVs that required us to get up from our chairs to change the channel. I came of age decades before Twitter, Facebook and smartphones.
One – and only one – figure in that time shrank the space between the world stage and the everyday person. That figure was Muhammad Ali.
He was loved, he was hated, he was reviled, he was revered. Through it all, he remained himself. He was commercial and controversial. He made his money, but wasn’t afraid to risk it.
He had something to say beyond his athletic gifts. His athletic abilities were unparalleled.
By this point in my life, I’ve lost my parents, dear friends and cultural icons such as David Bowie, John Lennon, Elvis and Prince.
But none of them – none of them – moved me as Ali did. None excited me, made me think, or showed me the power of earning personal pride as he did.
He rejected one name – Cassius Marcellus Clay – and took his own. He whupped almost every man who stood in the ring with him. He was beautiful and articulate and eloquent and brash and bold. He was the perfect man for his times. He was a man for all times.
On Friday night, though I knew his death was coming, I sat in the dark and cried for Muhammad Ali. I cried for what he meant to me and to the world. I cried for my youth gone by. I cried for times that seemed so crucial when we lived them, but seem so distant in a present marked by other heroes and other causes.
I cried because at some point soon, my generation and I will be gone from this earth.
But our hero – Muhammad Ali – will endure. Future generations will learn what we knew on those wondrous evenings when Ali fought the world. They will know what Ali proclaimed:
“Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, who is the greatest of them all? Muhammad Ali.”