Muhammad Ali died last night, after a long, twilight struggle with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s Disease. His death was a reminder of an era that ended long, long ago.
Ali was my favorite boxer — hell, he was just about everyone’s favorite boxer — but of course his influence transcended mere sport. Although he was the greatest fighter I ever saw, his words and conduct had a much more profound impact than he could ever make with his fists. Ali was one of those crucial cultural figures of the ’60s and ’70s who moved the needle and shifted the context. He did it when he rejected his “slave name,” spoke out against racism in America, adopted Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali to proclaim his freedom from the old ways of the Jim Crow South. He did it again when he refused to fight in Vietnam after being drafted, saying he had “no quarrel” with the Viet Cong. His anti-war stance cost him the prime years of his boxing career, but his words captured, in that special Ali way, the growing American unease with the fighting and dying in southeast Asia.
And, of course, Ali changed the national zeitgeist through sheer force of personality. He was the flamboyant black man who was unabashedly loud and proud, the sports star who wasn’t afraid to bluntly speak his mind on the issues of the day, the quick-thinking, silver-tongued marketing genius who mocked his opponents, traded gibes with Howard Cosell, and built his fights into worldwide phenomena, and the boxing great with the astonishingly quick hands, the dancing, tasseled feet, and the grit and determination to always fight to the end in some of the greatest matches ever staged. For a time, he was the most famous man on the planet, and his style and entourage and antics changed the world of sports and celebrities forever.
All of this made an indelible impression on me and every other kid, regardless of race, color, or creed, who was growing up in the America of the 1960s and 1970s. We all wanted to have the same brilliant flash and dash, the same glibness, as Muhammad Ali. He was as magnetic and mesmerizing as any national figure I can remember — which made the shaky, diminished Ali of later years, ravaged by his disease, so difficult to see. The days when the world would stop to focus on one man and one battle in a boxing ring are long past, but Muhammad Ali of that era will live on in memory, and in our cultural history.