Saturday, June 04, 2016

Ali: The Self-Appointed Greatest

Before he was Ali, Cassius Clay met four British lads in Miami in 1964.
I wasn't going to write about Muhammad Ali. I just wasn't. Like Prince, I was just going to let it go.

You know Prince died, right? Not Elvis or John Lennon or McCartney or Dylan, but Prince. Huh. OK.

Anyway, that's my point, even if you liked the person who has passed (I had some regard for some of Prince's music, and liked Ali), you're a horrible person (and likely accused of being a racist) if you dare to show any warts. At least according to comedian and "radio personality" Jim Norton.
Well thanks there, pal.

Then I read the most brilliant obituary in the Wall Street Journal by author Jonathan Eig. FULL DISCLOSURE! Jonathan has been on Nutmeg Sports with me and is a Facebook friend whom I've interacted with. We haven't had tea at the The Plaza. I've never met the man in person.

That being said, this obituary is so amazingly outstanding that it must be shared.

It allows us - the reader - to not simply think Ali was "The Greatest" but that he was mortal. Flawed.

So many people have taken to social media today to laud the great Ali, and deservedly so. Ali was a tremendous boxer, but I hasten to say he was the greatest ever. Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis immediately spring to my mind. My dad, who enjoyed boxing (one of the last things I ever remember watching with him was a Mike Tyson fight) said he felt Rocky Marciano was the best.

I'm not saying Ali wasn't the greatest. I'm not saying he was either. I'd probably take Sugar Ray Robinson, but boxing is not my area of expertise.

Ali was The Greatest (see what I did there?). Why? Because he told you so. He was a brilliant marketing showman. He defined it. He was crazy quotable. The interwebs are littered with his quotes today. Heck, even baseball's poet laureate announced the news.

Oh but back to the work of Mr. Eig. You see, I was born around the time of Ali's conscientiously objecting to going into the Armed Services. I lived in a house with a father who wanted to serve his country in Korea and couldn't due to his debilitating arthritis. So we had the two-headed monster of recognizing Ali's brilliance as a boxer, but also the very-common feeling of him dumping on the country.

Amazing how time, the great equalizer, can soothe that. If any quote stunned me in Jonathan's obit, it was this one:
In a career full of seemingly magical feats, Ali’s greatest trick may have been his transformation—from one the nation’s most reviled characters to one of its most beloved. 

Read on and discover how Ali was critical of Dr. King. Can you imagine?

But Ali was the most gifted of people, in that he worked magic to make Americans of the 70s and 80s begin to forget his objecting and embrace him as a boxer, humanitarian, and personality. He was a nearly one-man PR crew, although he had plenty of people by his side (and no small assist handed in by a certain Mr. Howard Cosell, speaking of sports).

Indeed, with the exception of Michael Jordan, he's the most famous face in the history of Sports Illustrated. It's without question that he's one of the most famous people in the world.

Who was better to light the cauldron at the Olympics in Atlanta in '96?

But he was also very real. That attention he craved through his bombast carried into a personal life of failed marriages and myriad affairs.

That's why I love this obituary so much. It allows us to see Ali for all that he was. Civil Rights activist? Yes. Conscientious objector? You bet. Great boxer? Oh my yeah. Funny man? Hahaha, of course.

Flawed? Without question. The truth is, despite the politically-correct bluster of today, we are a nation who likes our heroes slightly flawed. Save for a Lou Gehrig (please read Eig's brilliant biography of him, Luckiest Man), we can generally find some warts in everyone (and Gehrig was habitually cheap, by the way).

Mickey Mantle once told Billy Crystal to be truthful when it came to portraying his story. Mickey told us all he was no role model. The end of his life, when he told us that, were his finest hours.

So rest in peace, champ. Thanks for the many moments of making a young boy laugh, but also for teaching me hard lessons about heroes at an early age.

No comments: