In memoriam: Muhammad Ali (1942 -2016)

Muhammad Ali. Photograph by Ira Rosenberg. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Muhammad Ali. Photograph by Ira Rosenberg. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Kings and presidents die, and nobody cares, Muhammad Ali once said. But Joe Louis died, and everybody cried.

Are they crying now for Muhammad Ali, who died Friday in Scottsdale, Ariz. of complications from Parkinson’s disease? No doubt.

Boxers are perhaps the most poignant of athletes, for in a sense, they absorb the blows for the rest of us. Boxing, the novelist Joyce Carol Oates observed in her nonfiction work, “On Boxing,” is “America’s tragic theater.”

If that’s the case, there was never a “performer” quite in the class of Ali. Like Brando or Jackie, he was an American icon, singularly self-possessed – some would say, selfish even. Think what you will, however, but Ali owned that self-possession. He refused to fight in Vietnam and paid for a time with his heavyweight crown. He conducted a vicious rivalry with Joe Frazier – and made his peace with him and it. Few will forget a trembling Ali making his way into Frazier’s 2011 funeral. Once, they had engaged fans with their “Thrilla in Manilla.” Now as Ali haltingly shuffled into the church – one champ, calcified in his Parkison’s, paying tribute to a dead one – all the bitterness and brutality fell away and what they and we were left with was the love of a sport they once shared.

Time: Ali once said that the man at 50 who thinks the way he did at 30 has wasted 20 years of his life. Time is the great enemy of America, still an adolescent country. But Ali wasn’t afraid of time. He stepped into the ring and took his best shot – floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee – because he understood that we get once chance at the main event.

But that if we have the courage to risk accomplishment – to risk love – it will matter that we passed this way at all.

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