As his passing is still fresh, there is not much I can truly say. Not to mention, there are some great articles out there that disclose and summarize the athletic and social greatness of Muhammad Ali. So that’s not exactly what this quick post is about.
I started to ask myself, “when did I first hear about this man?” He was at the tail end of his career when I was born so I never saw him box until years later when I watched the replays on ESPN Classic and other sites. But as a kid, I remember seeing him on TV shows like Diff’rent Strokes. Or at Wrestlemania. And who can forget the epic boxing rant in Coming to America. “His mama call him ‘Clay,’ I’mma call him ‘Clay.'”
But that’s not how I first came to “know” Ali. I came to understand who he was and his greatness, both in and out of the ring, through the oral storytelling of my father, Ujjayyi. It was my dad who talked about the “Rumble in the Jungle” and how after Foreman had obliterated Frazier and had utterly devastated Norton, that people feared for Ali’s life. My dad’s words, his facial expressions, his vocal inflections and hand gestures all conveyed the drama of that fight, the genius of Ali’s strategy, and one of the greatest upsets in sports history. And by the time my dad finished the telling of the lead-up and aftermath of the “Thrilla [that’s how my Dad said it, and that’s how I say it to this day] in Manila,” my 5 or 6-year-old self felt like I was in the arena, witnessing one of the greatest sports events in history. And I can still hear the reticence and embarrassment(?) in his voice when he recounted Holmes’ beatdown of Ali. To this day, it’s the only match of Ali’s that I haven’t seen, and I know it’s because of how my dad painted that fight. And based on the articles I’ve read, his testimony is corroborated with others.
Ali’s greatness in the ring was conveyed to me through oral tradition by way of my Dad. This alone is worth note. Ali was so great that he inspired my Dad, who had to tell me the story of Ali’s comeback. From an early age, I learned what first generation Christians and other ancient civilizations understood. Oral Storytelling, more so than texts and now TV, are powerful means of communication and persuasion. Nothing beats a story told in the physical presence of the storyteller. Ali connected me to my dad and to the power of oral narrative. And I’m sure I’m not alone on those two counts.
But my Dad also explained the social significance of Ali. The boisterous braggadocio of a Negro in the midst of the 1960s, his conversion to Islam and joining the Nation. The changing of his name. The punishing blows he inflicted on boxers for referring to him as “Clay” and barking,”What’s/Say My Name,” while pummeling them senseless. (Sorry Snoop and Beyoncé. Ali spoke those words a bit more profoundly than y’all did on Doggystyle and The Writing’s on the Wall.) And his conscientious objection to the War in Vietnam and the loss of his title and prime. And never lost on me was that this man–and he was just a man, flaws and all–also socially identified as a black man in an era of social unrest and rampant racism.
Ali didn’t just signify greatness in sports; he transcended sports. He signified human greatness. But human greatness can only be attained in time and space, dealing with the politics, economics, identity and group formations, religious and philosophical options, and (inter)personal decisions of life. We cannot talk about his human greatness without talking about how he struggled with race and racism, the fallout with choosing Islam in a time and space of Christian majority, and his refusal to allow the status quo to dictate his stance on a divisive war. And that doesn’t include the training and fighting prowess of a man who understood that to live life you must embrace paradox. You must “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
Ali makes Jordan seem so small in comparison. After all, it was Jordan who famously responded when someone asked him why he was not politically outspoken: “Republicans buy Jordan’s too.” And though the champ dropped and was stripped of the belt, he’s still “The Champ.” Being undefeated in championship bouts might make you a champ but it does not make you The Champ.
But all of these insights I now possess are only possible because of the oral tradition my father passed on to me.
Thank you, Champ. Like all of us, you were not flawless. But unlike many, you revealed that the status quo is not absolute, that to “transcend (modern conceptions of) race” is really to expose, destroy, and undermine its caustic and ugly history. You shocked the world with your boxing prowess and inspired generations to come in so many arenas. You showed that disability should not lead to dehumanization. You taught me the power of oral storytelling. And you gave me occasions to get closer to my father. For that, I am truly grateful. Rest in peace, Champ. Rest in peace. You live on.
© 2016 M. J. Sales