By Jason Keidel
Muhammad Ali was one of the most inspected and dissected American athletes — and human beings — of the last 100 years. But can we ever really get enough of the Greatest? Of course not. Ali transcended boxing, and sports, and one need not be a fan of either to adore the heavyweight nonpareil and cultural king of the world.
Fans of boxing and the iconic fighter get another serving with the recent publication of Muhammad Ali Unfiltered, from Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster). It’s a full, 254-page motif, from Ali’s young, beautiful years set in turbulent times, to his aged elegance, mustached, Dark Gable years, to the post-boxing life, when sports’ greatest talker was robbed of his platinum tongue, rendered silent save for the fleshy tremble of Parkinson’s Disease.
The book unfolds into a kind of motion picture, a mural of the iconic boxer in his myriad mutations. The photos are interspersed with Ali quotes, mantras and colloquialisms, from the more obscure and atypically modest, “I’m no leader. I’m a humble little follower,” to the more famous and bombastic, “If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize.”
Many of the shots were surely taken by his friend, confidant and de facto biographer, Howard Bingham, who literally rode shotgun through the champ’s adult life. Though Ali wore many crowns and titles — humanitarian, poet, provocateur — none would be possible without his lone official title, heavyweight champion of the world. Ali is understandably known for his deeds beyond the ropes — perhaps more now than ever, with the political tinder box our nation has become — but none would be possible without his vocational genius.
The whistle-to-gun chronology shows Ali at his, yes, Greatest. But when was it? That’s the beauty of Ali. Was he at his best on the border between Clay and Ali, when he shocked the boxing world by knocking out the hulking Sonny Liston and then shocked the entire world by changing names, religions and allegiances?
Was he at his best when he pummeled Cleveland Williams, the night when, according to Jose Torres, Ali was, on that night, the greatest boxer who ever lived?
Or was Ali at his best when he was no longer the best? As Joyce Carol Oates once wrote, the good news for postwar Ali was that he discovered he had a great chin. The bad news, in retrospect, was that he discovered he had a great chin.
Indeed, his granite jaw and malleable mouth served several purposes. They were invincible for two decades. Until they weren’t. Not even Muhammad Ali could rope-a-dope Father Time.
Perhaps pictures are the best way to convey Ali, as he is one of those few people who transcend words, bards, poets and musicians. We all feel somewhat impotent when squeezing the man into paragraphs.
Ali always used the arena to make a larger declaration, with the sky blue canvas of his profession doubling as a springboard into cultural and political awareness. At his prime, Ali was the most recognizable face on Earth. More so than our president, the Pope or Gandhi. It’s hard to think of anyone with greater crossover appeal than the Greatest, who used his athletic splendor for change, and saw himself as a vessel for peace and equality.
While in 2016 Muhammad Ali has assumed angelic dimensions, he was arguably the most polarizing, if not the most hated, man in America. Just as Jim Crow was taking it on the chin, Ali was loud when people of color were told to be quiet. Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay when people of color were told to just be grateful for their microscopic slice of America. Ali refused to fight in Vietnam when people of color were told to do what they were told, to give to a nation that gave nothing to you.
George Will once said that the two most important people in the Civil Rights movement were Martin Luther King Jr and Jackie Robinson. That seems like a reasonable assertion, but Ali must at least be in the room, considering the swath of his impact. Ali’s face and voice fanned out across the nation, and then the globe, with unprecedented speed and import.
Since Ali’s death, sports fans have wondered if we will ever see his likeness again. Certainly not in boxing, where Floyd Mayweather Jr tried his best to mimic Ali in and out of the ring. He fell a bit short in the ring and woefully short outside of it. And team sports don’t lend themselves to the type of individualism and activism that an ardently autonomous affair like boxing promotes.
Muhammad Ali was the closest thing to God that we’re likely to see in an athlete. But Ali would be the first to tell you he was not God, despite his spirituality. He settled for the Greatest.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.