Happy Birthday, Champ.
I still call you Champ, 25 years after you stepped onto the ring for your sad swansong in the Bahamas. A quarter century since your last bout, and 28 years since you took your last title belt, you are, in my mind, still The Champ, still The Greatest Of All Time. There never had been anyone like you, that majestic amalgamation of looks, and bravura, and athleticism, and outspokenness, and I venture to say, with a strong degree of certainty, there will never again be anyone like you.
God, your God, their God, whichever God, truly endeavored overtime when he ladled all those delicious ingredients together, and planted the Greatest seed into the womb of your momma. You were expelled on January 17, 1942, 65 years ago, and this birthday resonates especially with us because it is seen as a traditional age of retirement.
Man, there was no shortage of folks back in the day—today they are called “haters”—who wanted you retired. When you proclaimed a conversion to Islam after wresting the heavyweight title from the Big Bear, Sonny Liston, you were a lightning rod of controversy. Hopefully I'm not bumming you out on your B-day when I refer to the “Draft That Nigger Clay” campaign that some ignoramus tried to hatch when you told the world that you wanted to try out some of that religious freedom our nation supposedly held so dear. Those were some fractious times, Champ, and every now and again I delve into some of the documents from the day to remind myself how far we've come as a people, and sometimes, to remind myself how far we still have to go. Thank you for compelling me to go there.
You exploded into the national consciousness when you whupped Liston, that icon of malevolence, Champ. And your legend and otherworldly fistic and oratorical and anti-authoritarian stances propelled you into an international sphere of fame and notoriety before the seed that became me reached fruition, but I've done my homework, Ali.
I've read the books, watched and re-watched the video, pored over the microfilm, and delved deep into the periodicals database. You really knew how to touch a nerve back in the day, man. I can't help but compare and contrast you, and the hefty gravity of your being, with what passes for sports icons today. “I ain't got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” you said in 1966, as you took a stand, and put your career on the line, to protest your forced enlistment into the US Army. Dude, that took some grapefruit sized balls. Our sports figures today fear pissing off a sponsor to the point that they rarely traffic in truth. They stand puny in your immense shadow, and they, and we, can all learn something valuable by reacquainting ourselves with the amazing arc of your life. That arc will “shock and amaze ya,” I know, centuries after we're both rendered to dust.
Now, Champ, I'm not saying I'm in lockstep with all of your views and pronouncements that you, a master verbal provocateur, uttered.
Remember saying, “A black man should be killed if he's messing with a white woman?” Yikes, that's hardcore, beyond my comprehension and totally and completely over the line. That's hate speech, and I know you regretted some of your more volatile declarations as your gut and your ideals softened through the years.
And man, no disrespect, but could you ever bull—-. Masterfully. Remember, Champ, when you were trying to do the impossible, and turn back the clock, and do it again against Holmes? You recall how you used to cut short your roadwork, and tell people that Allah sent you a signal to forego that extra mile? I never held it against you, Champ, because who among us doesn't sling some industrial strength BS every now and again in order to slog through another dreary day?
As you began to taste the bitter realization of the inevitable decline of physical skills, we all gained an increased respect for you as a man. You showed glimpses of humility that one might never have you could admit to internally, let alone verbalize. OK, so you didn't really traffic in reality after Holmes had his way with you in 1980. But you harbored no delusions when you admitted, finally, firmly, that you knew your skills were gone after Berbick beat you in the Bahamas in 1981.
Champ, you've served as both the very best ambassador for the savage science, as well as the most potent advertisement for its abolition. Your current state can serve as a severe depressant if we ponder it too long, and let our minds perform the cruel task of comparing you when your were the Man, to today, when you are a lowercase man who has been diminished so dramatically by Parkinson's…but you don't participate in that pity party, knowing full well that you made your bed, and now you lay in it, for better or for worse. You look on the bright side of things, and realize that you had a glorious run in the sun, and don't publicly dwell on the shadowy downside. That's a most basic, and most welcomed message, Champ, because we all experience sad valleys in our existence, and if you aren't giving in to darkness, then damn it, neither will we.
Thanks for making my job easier, Champ. Writing about you isn't really work, I must tell you. You provoke thought, and feeling, and inspire me to be a better man. Happy birthday, Champ; you truly are The Greatest Of All Time.