Last Friday the world received the tragic yet not-surprising news that the King of the World had passed away. I could say that Muhammad Ali was the self-proclaimed King of the World, but those who know his story understand this would be a cowardly attempt at conveying the truth.
Thing is, I’m not even one of those people who can say they truly knew or understood his story. I’m only 22 years old. When Ali took on his new name, leaving behind the less-known nomination Cassius Clay, I was not born. When he was drafted and consequently refused to join the fight in the ill-conceived Vietnam War, I wasn’t alive to understand the depths of conflict. When he defeated Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975, I was still nearly 20 years from taking my first breath of air.
The only experiences or memories I have of Ali is the man he became after his fighting career, living with Parkinson’s disease with the world longing, yearning, for the days when Ali was at the top of his game. That should tell you the transcendence of how important Ali was not only for sports, but for society at large.
The Champ, Ali, might have been the most popular man on the face of the earth for over three decades. This came at a time without the Internet, without Twitter or Facebook, to spread his message or video to share his prominence.
While he was the best ever to lace up the gloves and step into the ring, he also provided a reason for athletes and more importantly, people, to be themselves. He stood up for what he believed in, advocated for civil rights and wasn’t afraid to ruffle feathers. He didn’t back down from the government when he was drafted despite losing his status as the world heavyweight champion. He championed himself as a black athlete during a time of extreme strife and conflict.
If you don’t think that’s special, find an athlete who’s willing to do that today. Find an athlete today who’s willing to call a spade a spade — or Donald Trump a racist — if it means coming off as one-sided and potentially losing marketing revenue. I’m sure if it came down to it again today, if an athlete were cornered into making a statement about Trump’s clearly socially repugnant behaviour, it would fall along the same line as Michael Jordan’s, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” essentially choosing commerce over conscience.
There really isn’t an athlete today that’s leading the way in public defiance of the way Trump, a presidential nominee, has treated minorities across the U.S. That’s a shame. I can only think of what Ali would have said or done as a Muslim athlete if this happened during his time.
And that’s the legacy that Ali has imparted on me, a young man who never saw him box nor understood the trials and tribulations he endured to be as completely genuine as he could possibly be. Many philosophers and motivational speakers have touted the near-cliché that there’s greatness in all of us. In the life of Ali, he proved that to be true.
When it was all said and done, Ali made the dash between the two dates on his future headstone mean the most. All he had to do was be himself.