It’s rare nowadays when something is universally accepted, but since Muhammad Ali passed away on Friday, few, if any, have disputed that he was the greatest of all time.
His dominance and godlike stature in the boxing world were only part of the equation, though. Ali’s rise to prominence transcended his athletic prowess and put him into rarefied air few have or will ever reach.
He was one of the loudest voices within the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and constantly shook the foundation of the white establishment whenever a microphone was put in front of him.
He had no formal education, but he was constantly reading, studying, watching and digesting his surroundings wherever he went.
Ali was as precise with his retorts as he was with his right hook. He once went blow for blow with a white protester when he was speaking publicly about why he refused to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War.
“I’ll die right here fighting you if I’m gonna die,” Ali said to the college student, conviction audibly building. “You my enemy. My enemy is the white people, not Vietcong or Chinese or Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me at home.”
The Champ’s irrepressible personality and timeless trash talk made him an international icon in a world without social media or 24-hour sports networks. His captivating ways also made it possible for the “Thrilla in Manila” to be held in the Philippines and “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire.
He personified the black struggle while embodying its potential if unchained. Shortly after upsetting Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964, he became a Muslim, changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. During countless interviews he referred to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, channeling the spiritual tutelage of his religious mentor Malcolm X as he deepened his public ties with the Nation of Islam.
When Ali spoke, people listened. And when he took a stance on something, he moved the needle.
But since his heyday, few athletes of his caliber have approached the activist waters with the willingness to dive to the depths he did.
The apolitical ways of Michael Jordan changed the manner in which sports figures aligned themselves with the woes of the world. He indirectly provided a blueprint for the modern athlete, avoiding controversy as opposed to creating it.
To support charities and create nonprofits was OK, but to support social movements and create change was a step in the wrong direction.
Much of that is also due to the influence of corporate sponsors and endorsements. Players are encouraged to stay in their lane rather than get dirty in the trenches because, more often than not, those contracts are significantly larger than their salary. LeBron James, for example, gets $44 million each year for his performance outside the basketball arena, which is $20 million more than what the Cleveland Cavaliers pay him.
He might be the one athlete who’s flirted with the atmosphere of Ali, too. At the peak of one of the most violent months in Cleveland history last fall, after a 5-month-old baby girl was fatally shot, James let off a series of late-night tweets aimed at gun violence that drew questions from reporters the next day at practice.
“I know what I see. I know how I feel,” he said to them. “Obviously you’re not going to be able to take every gun out, but if there’s some big-time penalties or rules or regulations, people will second-guess themselves.”
Most of the time James responds with somewhat neutral, vague generalities when he’s asked about social issues outside of basketball, but this was the one that literally hit closest to home and drew the most unfiltered answer he’s ever given.
But that shooting happened during the preseason and, once games started to matter, he didn’t touch the subject again. The immediate fallout those comments created from people standing on both sides of the issue may have hushed any cultural voice James was developing.
In March 2012, James and his Miami Heat teammates posed for a photo with their hoods up to pay tribute to Trayvon Martin. After Eric Garner was choked to death by NYPD officers in December 2014, many NBA players and teams wore “I Can’t Breathe” shirts during warm-ups, but James only wore his after other players had already taken the plunge.
Those silent protests have simply fallen on deaf ears, though, and, while they did well on social media, were always short-lived.
That’s where Ali separated himself from every athlete that was and may ever be. He was a boxer first and an activist second. His disgust with the powers that be helped fuel his desire to be great.
He was the giant whose shoulders the athletes of our time were meant to stand on.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali once said. “I’m free to be what I want.”