George Foreman certainly said it best in the beautiful documentary Facing Ali when he called Muhammad Ali, not just the greatest fighter to ever live, but the greatest person to ever live.
It seems fitting that those who had the best to say about man who would be king are the very men who chipped away at the youth of the man-child that graced the world with a unique liveliness rarely seen in this or any life time. “Man-child” is far from insult, as Muhammad Ali was young at heart and despite the years that rolled by, every public appearance and every recorded interview was filled with a youthful exuberance that will continue to inspire those all who have seen him.
Words can never express what Ali meant to the world at large, but words are all we have left from the man known as “The Greatest”:
This is the Legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal and brags indeedy,
Of a muscular punch, that’s incredibly speedy.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
With a champ like Liston,
Things had to be dreary.
Than someone with color, someone with dash,
Brought fight fans running’ with cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see,
And the heavyweight championship is his destiny.
This kid fights great he has speed and endurance,
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
This kid’s got a left; this kids got a right,
If he hits you once, you asleep for the night.
And as you lay on the floor while the ref counts ‘10’,
You pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
For I am the man this poem is about,
The next champ of the world there isn’t a doubt.
This I predict and I know the score,
I’ll be champ of the world, in ’64.
When I say three they go in the third,
So don’t bet against me I am a man of my word.
This is just a sample of one of many, many wonderful poems from the butterfly who stung like a bee. Ali has had scores of writings and documentaries with him as the subject, more so than any other athlete. His story has been told over and over.
He was born January 17, 1942. It is said that he began fighting at the age of 12 after his bike was stolen and he wanted to put a whoopin’ on the thief. He won a gold medal at light heavyweight for the USA Olympic team in 1960. He was dubbed “The Mayor of Olympic Village” because of his charisma and charm. He won the heavyweight title for the first time in 1964 against Sonny (whom he dubbed “The Bear” Liston) when he was 22-years-old and, “Shook up the world.”
He would lose the title out of the ring (the first champ to do so) for refusing induction into the draft during the Vietnam War. He gave up everything. He would return and win the heavyweight title a total of three-times (at the time the most of any champion ever) and compete in the most thrilling fights against the most dangerous men who ever laced up a pair of gloves. He retired in 1981; these are so very few facts of the most wonderful champion that man-kind has seen.
Sports announcers and journalist will argue he was one of the top 100 athletes of all-time. They are wrong. He is number one through 100 on that list.
Scores of people across the world during and since 1964 have claimed to “Shook up the world” and drew inspiration from the boxer king, and many never had to see him fight or meet him in person. But for those of us lucky enough, we have an “Ali Moment”.
I will never forget running my very first L.A. Marathon as a 12-year-old boy in 2004, and I thank all the powers that be, that Ali was there. Thousands of runners crammed elbow-to-elbow and heel-to-toe, and as we crossed the threshold to begin the race, I ran alongside my mother, and we heard The Chant.
“Ali, Ali, Ali!” and my mother smacked my elbow pointed up above a platform, standing beside the mayor was The Greatest Muhammad Ali, who blew kisses to the runners as we clamored and cheered and roared his name. Boxing had forever been the only sport I cared about and even at 12, I felt the presence of greatness. And then, he began to point.
My blood had just begun pumping in the early morning; it was close to 8:30 and the sweat had begun to perspire above my brow, and just like all the other thousands of runners who passed him, I saw Ali point at me, make eye-contact with me. Call it child’s imagination, but Ali himself knew how special a child’s mind was. I felt us locking eyes, and as he pointed at me, I pointed back at him and screamed whatever a 12-year-old would. I knew I would finish the race, and I knew I would go on to be involved in the sweet science.
That was my Ali Moment. One of my most cherished memories with my mother.
The world did not just lose a former champ; it lost an icon, a hero, a social pariah, a minister, a profit, a legend, and as one of his most formidable opponents has said the greatest person.