Saturday, June 4, 2016

Still The Greatest

Muhammad Ali was always an aging fighter to me.  I was born in 1970, so I missed the early fights, where his speed and talent announced itself with a flourish in the heavyweight division. I missed a lot of the politics as well; Vietnam, the name change, and the social statement made by an African-American champion who replaced the quiet dignity of past trailblazers with a pride, wit and bravado that demanded respect.

The Ali I knew was an athlete who was deeply human. Ali was unique, but this struggle was universal. There is something deeply compelling about watching how a person deals with that moment in life where they are defined not by the talents God has given, but by the things time has stolen. 

I was lucky to have a father to watch those fights with who loved boxing for the strategy and the lessons more so than the violence. We watched a physically diminished Ali teach us.  We sawthe strategy and impulse control it took to let the dangerous George Foreman punch himself out. We saw the value of sheer will as he outlasted Joe Frazier. We saw cunning, too, the way he used the energy of the crowd to demoralize and wear down a younger Leon Spinks, and the way he summoned up the magic footwork of old to take the angles away from a hard-punching Earnie Shavers. 

If he stayed too long, well, he gave us lessons there too about the dark side of passion and pride, how even our greatest strengths carry in them the potential to lead us wrong. In his later years, he got to see the world change. The issues of race and war where he had been the most polarizing of icons now we're settled in his favour, and he became a symbol of accepted truths.  If he was reduced by Parkinson's to the quiet dignity he once so powerfully refused, certainly he now had that luxury. The Greatest had earned his silence. Today, The Greatest has earned his rest. 

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