Thursday, June 9, 2016

A hero outside of the ring as well: Deceased Artiste Muhammad Ali

So much has been said about Muhammad Ali as an athlete, an entertainer (for he surely was that), and as a civil rights icon. The guy was a hero in a bunch of ways, but one of those ways isn't talked about as much, because it made us all “uncomfortable” while it was going on. I'm referring to his dealing with Parkinson's, and the fact that he didn't shrink from the spotlight even after he admitted he had it. (He had been denying it for some time before that.)

His obits were accompanied by images of him as a champion boxer, a lot of them using the famous photo of him looming over Sonny Liston (which in and of itself was a victory but a cloudy one – read Nick Tosches' The Devil and Sonny Liston for more details). However, the most stirringly heroic image of his life for me wasn't when he was young, lean, clever, articulate, and “pretty” (the word he most often used in interviews to describe himself). It was when he lit the Olympic torch in 1996.

At the time I was younger and found it upsetting, seeing him in that condition. Now that I'm older I realize that it truly was a heroic act – letting the world see him in that state, one hand shaking wildly. Yet he did it, proudly showing he could do the task he was called up on to do. He was relatively young, a middle-aged man of 54 at that time and gravely afflicted by Parkinson’s, and while he was not the Ali of old (the loss of his dazzling verbal skills was indeed heartbreaking), he was still an athlete and a proud individual. The only footage of the event that is not punctuated by unnecessary talking heads can be found here.

The last surprise he had for us was when he spoke about the 9/11 attacks on a charity program, urging Americans not to associate the attacks with the Muslim faith as a whole. By that point Muhammad no longer consented to interviews, and the public perception was that he was incapable of audible speech. But he came out and delivered a message of tolerance that, while clearly rehearsed and scripted, was a triumph for those who had written him off as a “sad victim of Parkinson’s.”

He of course wasn’t the Ali of old, playing with words like he toyed with his opponents, but it was a touching moment to hear him speak about something that mattered to him deeply. Even while stricken with an irreversible ailment he was a man of principle who was fine with being seen in public in an “unflattering” (but still majestic) state.

Those are the two moments that I immediately flashed on when I heard about his death, but as a bonus I’ll just add this particular encounter between Ali and Prince I discovered in researching those clips. Here the normally quiet Purple One speaks about his reverence for Ali at a July 1997 press conference promoting an upcoming charity concert.

Ali’s condition in the last three decades (plus) made many argue that he should’ve quit boxing sooner, or that the sport should be outlawed entirely. Both of those options make sense, but if the latter had happened before 1960, we would’ve never been treated to some of the greatest moments in the sport, courtesy of the “prettiest” of them all.

1 comment:


I'm glad you talk about the Parkinson's syndrome in this way: I wouldn't have wished it on Ali, but it didn't diminish him.
I remember Ali shaking as he held his BBC Sports Personality of the Century award; at first I felt uncomfortable, and he stood there for a while being applauded and then I got used to it.
"I enjoyed boxing," he said. "I had a great time doing it - and I may come back."
One newspaper the next day said how sad it was - The Mirror, I think - but Ali (like Johnny Cash) was impossible to feel sorry for. Kris Kristofferson, who knew them both, has said Cash and Ali received the reaction they did because people realized Cash and Ali loved them back just as much in return.