Muhammad Ali, who died late Friday at 74, stepped into each day the same way he stepped into the ring: with a deep belief in his own greatness, with bravery, fearlessness, courage and character on full display along with all the various flaws inherent in every human being on a planet Ali dominated through every act and achievement.
In a white man’s world, he dispensed with Cassius Clay for Muhammad Ali. He praised Elijah Muhammad as the greatest man he’d ever met. He danced in the ring with more grace than any ballet figure but refused out of conscience to take one small step forward for his local draft board. He had “no quarrel with them Viet Cong” but held on to disputes with a culture and a country he viewed as being unable or perhaps unwilling to fully unlock the shackles of the past: slavery, segregation, intolerance.
He tossed aside his Olympic medal. He was stripped of his heavyweight title. He declared himself to be a conscientious objector to a war that deeply altered and affected this country, perhaps forever. And he was right. He was a force of nature and arguably the most recognized person on earth.
He was also a man of many dimensions. Not some made-up super hero like John Wayne, Batman or Superman. He made friends and enemies too. He could be kind and cruel; just ask Joe Frazier’s family.
Thirty-six years ago this week, I spent a day with Ali. He was in Boston and had been invited to speak to the fifth reunion of Harvard’s Class of 1975. I met him early on a Saturday morning and I still recall the intensity in his eyes and the certainty of his beliefs. He was retired but still fought each moment of each day for beliefs that had formed him for more than a decade then.
Looking back now on that day, thinking about what he said to me then – a small part of what he always said with consistency and character until he died – I could not help thinking about all these people, these small people, these pretenders, who get in the ring where politics is the big fight only to collapse and concede their honor to the selfish, parochial, deeply political need of the moment. A prize fight has three minute rounds. An endorsement given because of personal ambition is forever.
Muhammad Ali is dead. Who he was and is, a complete man in full, complicated, courageous, charming, multi-dimensional, remains quite alive.
And here is a link to Ali at a breakfast table thirty six years ago.