Pulling no punches: Ali was and always will be ‘The Greatest’

col-tbuzz-2One of the best things about living to see a new millennium was the chance to participate in so many “best of the century” lists. As a newspaper sports columnist when the calendar struck 2000, the media was using the event for all sorts of debates – most notably ESPN’s epic project to name the top 50 athletes of the 20th century. That’s easy, I thought, Muhammad Ali.

I was stunned to learn that Ali finished a disappointing third in the polling (behind Michael Jordan and Babe Ruth. Of course, I also put Triple Crown winner Secretariat in my top 10 while others refused to include an animal in their list. It’s obviously a topic about which rational people can disagree, but hear me out. Of all the great athletes of the 20th century, only one emerged with the nickname “The Greatest”. Wayne Gretzky is “The Great One,” but that was more of a play on words.

If the list was the “best” athletes, I probably wouldn’t even list Ali as the best boxer of all time. But “greatness” implies more than just skill in the ring. You can be a great boxer by knocking out all your foes, like Rocky Marciano or Mike Tyson. But to be truly great, your impact must be felt beyond the ring, and no athlete had a longer reach outside the arena than Ali.

Yes, Ali was a talented and courageous boxer, as well as the ultimate showman during his reign. Television has been showing clips of his craftsmanship since his passing Saturday morning, so I won’t dwell on the classic moments he produced by upsetting Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title in 1964, or his rope-a-dope miracle at the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Or how he transformed sports with his gift of gab and supreme confidence that psyched out opponents in and out of the ring.

Instead, Ali will be remembered most as a champion of the people, a lightning rod for controversy and an instrument for social change around the world. By announcing his name change from Cassius Clay and religious affiliation to the Black Muslim Party, Ali challenged America’s perceptions of race and religion. I remember biting my lip while listing to elders curse his name and call him the n-word. His ability and cockiness rubbed white America the wrong way, but kids loved him.

That generational divide is part of the reason the country has made more progress in race relations over the past half-century than in the prior century since the end of slavery. Ali was a brash, bold black man who didn’t back down from anyone, not the boxers in the ring or the racist power-that-be outside it. And he backed up his smack talk with lightning-fast fists and a flair for the dramatic. Most of all, as the aspiring poet once said, “It’s the will, not the skill.” Ali had both.

So strong were his beliefs in social justice and anti-war stance that he gave up the peak years of his boxing career to avoid being drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War. A more moderate Ali probably would have served on a few USO Tours to entertain the troops, but he refused to yield and was stripped of his title and his ability to earn a living in his sport. We will never know what greatness we missed out on due to his suspension, but most now agree with his views on the Vietnam War.

Some believe Ali lost some of his luster by retiring too late and losing to the likes of Leon Spinks, and it was hard to watch him being pummeled past his prime. But Ali’s works after his career – serving as a goodwill ambassador between the US and the Islamic nations of the Middle East, showing true courage in battling Parkinson’s Disease, and uniting the world if only for one magical moment by lighting the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics – elevated him to iconic status line no other.

Yes, Michael Jordan missed out on his peak years in the NBA and still won six titles, but that was because he decided to play baseball, not being banned from his sport like Ali. And Ruth was considered a national hero for his home run slugging abilities, but he never played a game in integrated baseball. But Ali was and always will be considered a man of the people, all people. You might not consider him the best athlete of all time, but Ali was and always will be “The Greatest.”

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