Fear was only a word and not an institution for Muhammad Ali, which is why he truly was ‘The Greatest’
Live and let live and be afraid only of your conscience: Ali meant something to all of us
Tom Lysiak was a very good hockey player. Rick McLeish was as well. They just both picked a bad week because anyone who left the earth over the past seven days or so would have been overshadowed by the loss of Muhammad Ali. I mean, Muhammad Ali?
Introductions are meaningless for a man who once had the undisputed title of the most famous person on earth. Ali’s death is the most significant passing since Nelson Mandela left us a little less than three years ago and both men can be described in a single word: impact.
Theirs is a timeless and global appeal that clearly transcends South African politics and American boxing.
The faces may change, but the struggle for equality is as old as man itself and in that regard few personified the struggle in a more dignified and charismatic manner than Mandela and Ali.
Of course, dignity is in the eye of the beholder and those of us who actually have a fleeting memory of Ali the boxer may not necessarily think of his braggadocio and bombastic ways as being dignified.
Again, the man was not perfect and he would have been the first to tell you. But his greatest gift was a very personal one. We are all free to celebrate, or despise, different parts of Ali. You, me, your family, your neighbours, those you love and those you deplore, Ali may have meant something different to each of us. But make no mistake, he meant something to all of us.
For many of us the dignity in Ali was not in his words, but in his actions, particularly later in his enfeebled life when words did not exist. He had an uncompromisingly generous soul, as well as an acute understanding of the power of his global celebrity to effect positive change.
Again, you take what you want from Ali and the most enduring thing for me was his refusal to succumb to fear.
Thomas Hauser’s 1991 autobiography Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times is an unsparing and exhaustive book that has no agenda other than the truth and is as relevant today as it was 25 years ago. A venerable writer for The New York Times, Robert Lipsyte, had some of the most poignant insights, in particular the press conferences after Ali’s seminal victory over Sonny Liston in 1964.
After constant probing about the then Cassius Clay becoming a “black Muslim”, the newly crowned champ answered: “I know where I am going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I am free to be what I want.” And with that Muhammad Ali was born.
According to Lipsyte, the young charismatic Clay skillfully played the white, conservative media establishment from day one and then, much like one of his lethal jabs, boom!
“They (sports writers) took boxing kind of seriously, totally out of proportion to its true worth,” said Lipsyte. “And they had an attitude of contempt toward Clay. He gave us all such good copy, in a way it seemed like the journalistic equivalent of an easy lay. Then, after Liston, the press had no choice. We were hooked into the story and had to follow it to the end.”
And where that story took them was into some totally unfamiliar territory culminating in Ali’s refusal in 1967 to fight in the Vietnam war as a conscientious objector.
Before Ali, the anti-war movement was seen as a bunch of long-haired, stoned slackers. But this was the heavyweight champion of the world, the toughest man on the planet risking everything for peace and principle.
The war they wanted him to fight in a small country in Asia was nothing compared to the war his people were fighting in America. In that regard, Ali’s hatred towards the white man was more institutional than personal.
His defiance towards the US military industrial complex and its profit-driven perpetuation of fear was completely unheard of and because of it he losteverything, except his soul and that was really the only thing worth keeping.
Today, it seems infinitely logical when Ali said that he was not afraid of a poor farmer in a third world country and had no quarrel with him. But 50 years ago he was one of the few to not only see through the hypocrisy of the day, but to openly defy it.
He embraced the struggle with courage and conviction because someone had to, so why not the toughest man in the world.
Live and let live and fear only your conscience. That is what I personally got from Muhammad Ali and I will be eternally indebted to him for that.