The Greatest of All Time

I cried for Muhammad Ali when I was eight years old, the night he fought and lost to Leon Spinks, February 15, 1978. When I was eight years old Muhammad Ali was everywhere, the best known and most admired athlete in the world — he even had an animated television series, for heaven’s sake! — and everyone knew, without qualification, that he was The Greatest of All Time. I knew that too, took it as an article of faith. The Greatest of All Time, a living legend, was a man who simply could not be defeated, certainly not by Leon Spinks, who I had never heard of before and who I, in the depth of my understanding at the advanced age of eight years old, considered something of a palooka (had I known what the word “palooka” meant at that age, which I didn’t). But he did lose to Spinks, and I sobbed for hours. For Ali to lose to someone like that unmoored my understanding of the world. It was literally my first crisis of faith.

What I didn’t understand then, and wouldn’t fully understand for years afterwards, was that Ali was not called The Greatest of All Time because he was undefeatable in the ring. He was defeatable, five times in his career, even if the other 56 times he out-thought, out-fought, out-danced, and out-psyched the other men in the ring with him, his artistry in doing so becoming the foundation of his greatness for most people, including me. What made Ali The Greatest of All Time was the totality of who he was, outside the ring as well as in it.

The world doesn’t need me to recount the details of his life — there will be enough obituaries that will do that, and I can say with utter confidence that there are vast numbers of people better equipped, for all sorts of reasons, to eulogize the man. What I can say is that from that early crisis of faith at age eight to today, almost 40 years later, my understanding of Ali changed from him being a simple god on a pedestal, someone who was The Greatest of All Time by acclamation — and who was I at eight years old to argue — to him being a complex, difficult, imperfect and inspiring human being, a product of and a shaper of his time. What was true at age eight is true at age 47: He was The Greatest of All Time. What changed was not Ali. What changed is my understanding of him, and what greatness is.

Let me talk a moment about Ali being both a black man and a Muslim. In the wake of his death, you’re going to see people saying that Ali transcended his race or his religion, or both of them, to become someone who belonged to all people. I think two things about this. First, it’s undeniable that people of all races and creeds admired him, his life and his accomplishments. I loved him as a child, when my understanding of him was simple, and I honored him as an adult, when my understanding of him was more complex.

But — and this is the second thing — you cannot love or honor Ali properly without acknowledging that blackness and Islam are at the core of his greatness. It seems to me, and I think the events of his life bear this out, that the greatness of Ali — who he was — was did not come out to you, was not there for you, and in a fundamental way did not care what you thought of it. It was there, and you could come to it or not, and if you did, you had to take it on its on terms. On Ali’s terms. And Ali’s terms were: He was a black man, in America and in the world. He was a Muslim man, in America and in the world. He was who he was. He did not have to transcend those things about himself. You, however, might have to overcome your understanding of what you thought of both blackness and Islam to appreciate him. People did or did not; Ali went on regardless.

I think it’s important that when I was an eight-year-old child, one of my idols, one of my pantheon, someone whose greatness I accepted uncritically, was a black man. I’d like to think in a small, early way that my love for Ali made a difference in how I grew up thinking about race. As I grew up, and I learned about his experiences being black in the US in the mid-20th Century, his refusal to submit for the draft and his reasoning for it, and his conversion and movement through Islam — and the responses to all of these by others as they happened — Ali was an unwitting but invaluable teacher.

I can’t say I have a perfect understanding of race or religion or of blackness in America or of Islam. The imperfections of understanding of each of those is on me. But I can say that to the extent I engage in any of them with any measure of success, Muhammad Ali is part of the reason why. Because he was black. Because he was Muslim. And because he made me understand that both of those were fundamental to his greatness, not things he needed to transcend to be seen as great.

My friend and classmate Josh Marshall noted earlier today that the decline in interest in the sport of boxing over the last few decades makes it difficult for younger people — especially under the age of 30 — to understand the scope of Ali’s greatness in his time. I think it also means, particularly with regard to the sport of boxing, that Ali’s appellation as The Greatest of All Time is unlikely to be seriously challenged, ever. It’s not that other boxers won’t have better records; it’s not that other boxers won’t be great. It’s that for a moment in time, boxing had in its ranks a man who could and did shape his nation and his world with his athletic talent, his political courage, his devastatingly sharp mind, and his great heart.

He was Muhammad Ali and there will never be another like him. I cried for him when I was eight because I did not understand why he was The Greatest of All Time. I understand now. I cry for him again because I do.

40 Comments on “The Greatest of All Time”

  1. *claps*

    I’m under 30, and I don’t really know anything about Muhammed Ali. But this makes me want to know.

  2. Thank you, John.

    More eloquently, and in greater heartfelt detail, you’ve described something I could only characterize as “the integrity of living life on his own terms.”

    A towering life.

    A heroic life in every sense.

    I was never much of a boxing fan, but growing up in the 1960s, how could I not know Cassius Clay and then Muhammad Ali? How could I remain oblivious to the life he lived in public, without apology, without cruelty, and without regret?

    And then he got Parkinsons. And the cruelty of THAT rendered the decades of scorn and misunderstanding and oppresion he’d already triumphantly overcome to the level of prologue.

    If, like me, you are a coward, and you know you are a coward, you have a few clear choices of what to do with your fear. And if you attend on that fear, stop resisting it, stop denying or avoiding it, the study of your own fear gives you a level of insight into the courage of others.

    Muhammad Ali embodied and transcended and pushed further everything I’ve learned about both courage, and integrity.

    I am so very grateful my lifespan and circumstances overlapped his.

  3. I just amended my own blog with a glorious quote from him on how he wanted to be remembered. One could do a LOT worse than that, and too many did, and still do. I admire that at the heart of him he remained true to principle and didn’t get blown away by “the image” The man knew who he was. That’s increasingly rare, bombarded as we all are with images and sound bites and the white noise of everyone and everything telling us all about what we “should” be…

  4. My memories of Ali are closely linked with those of my dad. I was just a kid. We watched the fights together, we did Ali/Cosell impressions to each other after Thanksgiving dinners, we thoroughly enjoyed the showmanship and the skill. R.I.P. to a great man.

  5. Thank you for expressing this so well; I am yet older than you, and I had a ringside view of him changing the world. It was an honour and a privilege…

  6. That photo! I’d almost forgotten how gorgeous he was as a young man.

    I’m just old enough to remember when he converted and changed his name. The amount of grief and hatred he got for that and for refusing the draft was amazing and unrelenting.

    But he had so much grace in his soul as well as his body, all his life.

    I vividly remember when he hobbled out to light the Olympic torch, after he’d been sick for several years. That probably took more energy and more courage than any of his fights. But the look in his eyes showed he was still the same man inside.

    Also, he once beat Superman in a fight, so there’s that.

  7. P.S. The title line from Prince goes so well with Ali’s life! Look at it and the photo together!

    Man, this has been a rough year.

  8. I still remember a bit of George Carlin’s on Ali’s refusal to be drafted: All he wanted to do was beat people up, but the army wanted him to kill people, and he refused. So the army said “If you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat them up”. And yeah, that’s pretty much how that went down. Considering how much physical punishment he took, 74 is not a bad run, but it’s hard to watch the magnificent ones go down. We’re losing a lot of them this year.

  9. As a black woman, one of The Greatest things I think he did was his resistance to the draft and outlining why. What he said about the draft had the greatest effect on me, in my life. Im not a boxing fan, so his fighting didn’t influence me much, but the things he had to say, about how to live, did.

  10. He is said to have been one of the most famous humans ever to have lived. Considering an estimated 108 billion people have lived on the Earth, that’s quite an achievement!

    Thanks for all the glorious battles, Ali. You’ve earned a rest.

  11. I remember being in jr. high school the day after Ali lost to Spinks. You say the truth about many things. He was probably the most famous person in America. Hell, I didn’t know who Elvis was when he died the previous summer, but everyone knew who Ali was. These days, I couldn’t tell you who the heavyweight champion is or if there even is one.

    The question of being black and Muslim? Not only was he black he was an “uppity” black man. Calling himself pretty? That was far out for the 1960s.

    (I say uppity with all respect)

  12. If Muhammad Ali was a man who inspired you and you looked up too…well, you could have easily done worse. You most certainly could not have done better. The world is a sadder place without Muhammed Ali.

  13. Beautifully written, John. I grew up with a father who was a Golden Gloves fighter in college. Being the daddy’s-girl I was, I listened to every fight on the radio, watched every fight on the TV and grew up watching Ali without consciously recognizing what I was seeing and experiencing until years later. He will be missed!!

    As another point, this article at The Atlantic expresses similar thoughts and I thought it was also well written. You might appreciate it:

  14. Thanks John. I’m literally not that much older than you are. In my house, Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay was a thing in my household. I put that / in as a qualifier for a reason. My parents and siblings are/were older than I am, and Cassius Clay is the name the first knew him as. They didn’t understand why he changed his name. I never cared. What we all knew what that he was a true worldwide phenom.

    Between lunch boxes, t-shirts, and Wide World of Sports, you KNEW who the greatest was. Sure I’d later know who people like George Forman and Leon Spinks were, but Ali was the BOMB. Sure he could seem arrogant, but he was also personable. A contradiction in terms it sounds like, but not in his philosophy that to be great you had to go and DO… even if you didn’t think you were able. He’ll be missed… hell I’ve missed his jive talk for decades. I know my father and he might disagree on stuff like the draft–in principal– (my father and his oldest brother were both drafted for WW2), yet when it came to my older brother and Vietnam, I do believe they agreed. Ali wasn’t just a “name” he was a superstar. Known world wide for his boxing, and his beliefs. Like or dislike he was there and everywhere.

    RIP Sir, you are the greatest.

  15. While there were many positive things Ali did and modeled, it may be that his greatest impact is that, as we watched him deteriorate from Boxer’s Parkinson’s, he made boxing much less appealing.

  16. May Ali rest in peace. Great thoughts John. My parents had to restrain me from calling the police when watching a boxing match on TV as a pre-teen.. I thought I was watching a criminal assault. Since that episode I have never paid any attention to boxing, wrestling, sumo, or any of the physical conflict “sports.” I recognize our world culture values Ali for his boxing accomplishments. I simply do not. I would, even now, outlaw boxing and the like. Nevertheless, may he rest in peace for all of his other accomplishments, particularly his resistance to the Vietnam War effort. Were that the only thing he did, I would consider that plenty enough to call him an American Hero. I do call him so.

  17. Well said, sir.

    Except–in the third paragraph, did you mean “acclamation”? Sorry for the nit-picking, but the use of “acclimation” sent me to the dictionary in some confusion at first . . .

  18. He did things… he did things that meant a lot more than boxing. And at boxing, he was the …!

  19. I don’t care too much for boxing, but I did see the “Trilla in Manila” on TV back in ’75. Incredible fight. Both men dealt out and took tremendous physical punishment. It was hard to watch, they went after each other so, but I couldn’t look away. This was greatness of heart I could see with my own two eyes. Ali won the fight and is called “The Greatest” – and not just because of his boxing accomplishments. I have no quibble with that. But after watching that fight, I have enormous respect for Joe Frasier. It took men like him to push Mohammad Ali to realize his boxing potential.

  20. He won’t get only older
    Now the angels want to wear his red shorts

    He was too damn pretty for this Earth

  21. Alma Alexander: Thank you for posting that quote.

    Everyone: An adage my mother often said was whether someone had or did not have the courage of his convictions. Ali was the epitome of someone who, did, indeed, have that.

  22. I’ve always found boxing a brutal, distasteful sport. But I’ve admired Ali since he was Cassius Clay, for his courage, his wit, and his style.

  23. I think you can measure the greatness of a person, that when they are gone, the people, who you don’t think are connected with them, tell their stories about them. You are the second person today who I would not have associated with Ali, from who took the time to give a personal recollection. The other was Pete DeBoer, head coach of the San Jose Sharks who told how he met Ali when he was going to his High School prom.

    He is may be gone, but all the time he is remembered, his spirit will live on.

  24. I grew up in Cincinnati during the time of Ali’s reign and I still remember the Cassius Clay days. My family was big on sports and every Sunday we spent the afternoons and evenings at my grandmother and grandfather’s apartment in town. At least half of my family were outright racists (It caused me to basically divorce them before I was 20 years old). But whenever Wide World of Sports would come on with an Ali fight, or later, when there was special coverage of his fights, everyone stopped and paid attention to the black and white Zenith TV in my grandparent’s living room. They became respectful. Muhammad Ali transcended color – for my family, at least.

    I’m not saying the color of his skin wasn’t important – it was. But he forced people to look at HIM, the man, before anything else. And it was difficult not to like or respect him. Back in the ’60s and early ’70s that was a monumental feat.

  25. When I was a kid, I met Ali at a mosque in L.A. I was star-struck and didn’t know what to say. The other adults around laughed, but Ali just smiled at me. Then he leaned over and said, “You want to see a magic trick?” I nodded and he proceeded to do a disappearing coin trick that made everyone in the room laugh and clap.

  26. Ali also figured in my childhood. Dinner time in the late 60s often centered on his right as an American to ask for C.O. status and how and why he received different treatment. Ali was the first time I had to reconcile my idea of what was ‘right’ and my own society. Great man, towering figure, and an ideal of self-respect to live up to.

  27. You raised some excellent points well worth thinking about in the Bigger Picture. Thank you. RIP Ali.

  28. No Viet Cong called Me Nigger

    He died watching his society failing to knockout the things he went to prison for. In fact, y’all did the opposite and y’all in a worse state now then back then.

    Y’all might want to look up a school called “Renaissance” and weep.


    You do not deserve to eulogize this man: you ain’t earned the right yet.

    Now catch yourself if you worried about a single word beginning with the N letter and y’all still inflicting drone strikes and using up 33% of the world’s resources on 5% of the population.

    Y’all failed this man.

    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.




  29. He was the greatest, and that drove the racists mad.

    I was in the Navy then, and bet on Ali, and all those lifers from AL and MS were ready to cover the bet, and lost. After a while, they didn’t want to bet against the pretty black Muslim fighter anymore.

    He was the greatest!

  30. i liked your post a lot. i’m surprised that so many of the comments still focus on boxing. What i got out of of your post was that his greatness was in his ability to use his position as a popular public figure to make Americans look in the mirror and face the hypocrisy of sending black people in particular to fight for the freedoms of other people when they themselves were (and still are) being oppressed right here in the USA. His greatness was in his ability to inspire people and to be a role model to many different people for different reasons right up until now and into the future. anyway, I liked what you said about not transcending being black or being muslim. To say that he transcends them implies that his greatness was because he could go beyond being black (or being a muslim). As if that wouldn’t be enough.

    As a comparison, when I was in high school in chicago, everyone’s hero/role model was michael jordon. having grown up now, i know a lot more about his personality and character, and while he is still the greatest basket ball player, he isn’t The Greatest for exactly the reasons that Ali still is.

    Anyway, I know you get that since it was your point. I just hope more of your readers do. keep up the awesome SF too!

  31. The local sports radio out here pretty much devoted the entire weekend to him, and a few of the announcers noted that there were a good percentage of callers who were extremely negative about him as a person.

    Our local paper had a few stories from those who had extremely personal encounters with Ali and his family. Made for interesting reading, as it showed a facet that was seldom seem by the average person.

  32. I’ve never been a boxing fan, but he was so famous that I’d heard of him, before and after he changed his name, and everything he did was newsworthy. We’ve had a weekend of retrospectives here in the UK, TV and radio.

    It’s an odd thought that it could have all been so different if someone had not stolen his bicycle.

  33. The first half of the earlier quote, the one quoted by the all-caps ranter guy, was what I remembered. “I ain’t got no quarrel with no Viet Cong.” A lot of people who hated him for his race or his religion came to realize that they themselves also had no quarrel with no Viet Cong.

  34. For those who want to catch a great documentary portrait of Ali, check out the Leon Gast-directed film “When We Were Kings.” I love it partly because it had two hilarious Ali moments. One showed Ali in a joking pose apparently punching out one of The Beatles (it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, so I can’t tell you which one). The other has Ali going off on a long rant about how he’s going to beat George Foreman to news reporters. After he finishes his rant, a reporter asks him “So why do you think you’ll beat George Foreman?” Ali replies, “Because he talks too much.”

  35. I will turn 35 in two days. I have heard the name Muhammed Ali spoken with reverence all my life, but never understood why. Despite research, I remain baffled. I played sports, but I don’t understand sports fandom. I don’t understand his religious views or his political and cultural legacy. The man was never real for me, and I was unaware that he had still been alive until recently. This essay at least gives me some hint at what I’m missing.

%d bloggers like this: