Commentary by Tom Henihan
“I am the greatest.” He took that phrase and made it his own. It would be hard to imagine anyone else trying to assume that mantle without looking absurd.
Muhammad Ali came to embody that phrase as both a fighter and public figure. He was a serious minded man who possessed a playful intelligence and such exuberance of personality that when he bragged he transcended crass conceit and appeared to be playfully sparing with the world.
Nobody is perfect and of course, when you talk as much as Ali talked and with such braggadocio, it is inevitable you will cross the line. When he called Joe Frazier names, “Uncle Tom,” “too ugly to be champ,” “gorilla” it was offensive and facile as name-calling always is.
However, later, Ali did apologize and admitted he was wrong but only after Frazier made the overture on the 30th anniversary of his win against Ali in Madison Square Garden.
“Hey, man, just come on and give me a hug and let’s get on with our lives,” Frazier said, and when Ali did apologize, Frazier graciously accepted the apology.
“I’ll accept it, shake his hand and hug him when I see him,” he said… “We have to embrace each other. It’s time to talk and get together. Life’s too short.” In this particular instance, Joe Frazier proved the bigger man.
However, the phrase “character is destiny” certainly applied to Ali; he was principled, courageous and drawing on those attributes he transformed adversity into triumph.
By refusing to fight in the Vietnam War, he showed the courage of his convictions. When they stripped him of his world heavyweight title it was in name only. As he said at the time, nobody can take away what they have not given to him. The title was not bestowed, he earned it with his skill in the ring. Ironically, that sanction, instead of diminishing his stature increased it, as it became apparent more than ever that he was indeed a champion.
Looking at sports today, not only at those caught doping like Lance Armstrong but also the corruption within the sports establishment such as FIFA, the Olympic Committee, Cricket and so on, it appears that there is nothing more unsporting than sport itself.
Contemporary sport is not about natural prowess nor is a metaphor for what is best in us; it is clinical, mechanical and uninspiring. It is about money, manipulation and self-interest. It is rife with narcissism, craving adulation and winning by any means available without being truly the best.
Those who were not especially interested in boxing were interested in Muhammad Ali. He is possibly the most charming and approachable loudmouth to ever walk the earth. Without disarming his charisma by trying to define it, his presence was inspiring and never more so than when lighting the Olympic Flame in Atlanta in 1996.
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease a decade earlier, his physical prowess drastically diminished, and the comedic, poetic raconteur and voice of moral courage all but silenced. Where others might have withdrawn to preserve the vestige of them at their best, Ali walked out infirm but heroic before the world to light the flame and for everyone watching that moment was cathartic as they recognized that due to his strength of character and indomitable spirit, he was still the greatest.