“The Greatest” Is Gone

I can no longer watch boxing. I used to love it and have happy memories of sitting in a South Carolina living room with my grandparents and their friends, eating popcorn and watching the Friday Night Fights. My grandfather always rooted for the white boxer. Appropriate, since he was a virulent racist whom I nonetheless loved deeply in a conflicted way I am probably still sorting out.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the first time I saw Cassius Clay fight. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” does not begin to describe the grace with which he danced about the ring and the striking-snake-like power of his jabs. It is not an exaggeration to claim that he was the greatest boxer who ever lived. Of course, the reason I can no longer watch boxing is, at least in part, because I have watched the slow deterioration of this magnificent athlete from “pugilistic Parkinson’s disease” over many years, leading to his death yesterday. This is not sport; it is society-sanctioned murder.

Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhaammad Ali partially because he became a member of the “Nation of Islam,” like Malcom X under the guidance of Elijah Muhammad, a Black separatist who was later disgraced by allegations of his many love affairs. But it was his other reason for changing his name which captured our attention. “Cassius Clay was my slave name,” he said, enlightening many of us in those days, for the first time, that slave owners had indeed assigned Western names to their chattel human beings further stripping them of any identity or pride.

Ali became a loud and proud spokesman for the Black Pride movement of the 1960s and 70s, but he was an icon for other reasons as well. Convicted as a draft dodger for his principled opposition to the Viet Nam War, this 25 year old fighter was stripped of his World Heavyweight title and denied what would have arguably been his most productive and successful years as a boxer.

But he re-took the title and his bouts with Sonny Liston and George Foreman have become legends. “Rumbles in the Jungle” some were called, fought in Zaire, further advancing the visibility of what it means to be of “African descent” long before other Black leaders were willing to make that claim. The fact that Ali was seen as so often shockingly brash and arrogant speaks volumes to the fact that most of us white Americans in those days expected our “Negro” citizens to show proper respect to the dominant culture and not to “make waves.”

Waves Ali made — in sport and in society. The reason I can no longer watch boxing is that his long, slow decline has been inexorably linked to the nearly 30,000 blows he took to his head. They never marred his handsome face (“Joe Frazier is so ugly,” he often said, “and I am so beautiful!”) but they certainly marred his brain. And led to his death.

Muhammad Ali once said, “If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it — then I can achieve it.” Thank God Ali’s mind really never lost the ability to conceive things even though the brain itself was so damaged. Certainly his heart never lost the ability to believe in himself and in the equality of all people. And his achievements will likely never again be matched.

Maybe not “the Greatest” as he loved to boast. But certainly one of them. And I will miss him.

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