Muhammad Ali is dead. I have little to add to the many wonderful obituaries and appreciations all over the web, particularly this one from my friend Steve Almasy at CNN.com and this immersive take from Robert Lipsyte at The New York Times. What else can you say about someone who lived up to the old cliche, “bigger than life”?
But I’ll say this: When I was a kid I didn’t know much about boxing but I sure as hell knew about Muhammad Ali. You couldn’t avoid his humorous rhymes, his banter with Howard Cosell (he obviously loved the give-and-take with Howard), the anticipation for his fights.
When he came to my hometown of New Orleans for his rematch with Leon Spinks, it seemed like there was nothing else.
He may have been the most famous person in the world, at once a champion and a cartoon character.
He inspired a hit song. He was the subject of a movie in which he played himself. He was the star; Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine and Robert Duvall, an Oscar nominee and fresh off “Network,” were co-stars.
The movie was called “The Greatest.” That was in 1977.
He was a personality, as fast with his wit (or his brags) as his feet and fists.
He was controversial then, and because we live in 2016, I’m sure there will be backlash to all the tributes that are piling up today. But that was Ali, too: a lightning rod who didn’t shy away from the light. In doing so, he brightened the world.
Sportswriter and biographer Dave Kindred, quoted in the Times’ obit, said it best.
“We forgive Muhammad Ali his excesses because we see in him the child in us, and if he is foolish or cruel, if he is arrogant, if he is outrageously in love with his reflection, we forgive him because we no more can condemn him than condemn a rainbow for dissolving into the dark,” he wrote. “Rainbows are born of thunderstorms, and Muhammad Ali is both.”
Rumble on, Greatest.