Muhammad Ali: Paying Homage – Few words in the English language are as over-used as the words “icon” and “iconic.” Originally a term with Christian religious connotations, “iconic” became secularized; evolving into a handy tool for saying that a particular person cast a long shadow, impacting society. Iconic people, by and large, are venerated.
Because the term has been tossed around so loosely, “icon” doesn’t do Muhammad Ali justice. He was no mere icon, but an iconic icon. During the height of Ali’s fame, it was said that if he were to parachute onto a remote island, landing in a village that was isolated from the rest of the world, lacking electricity and newspapers, the locals would yet recognize him.
Ali’s death brought forth an outpouring of tributes. Googling around the Internet, here are some of our favorites:
“His personality elevated mere boxing matches to stopping-off points in the history of the 20th century. He was not only a man for his times; he shaped those times and made them unforgettable.” – Kevin Mitchell, The Guardian
“He moved us to laughter, wonder and even a couple tears. Ali knocked us out.” — Todd Harmonson, Orange County Register
“He was Mark Twain with boxing gloves, an American original. But at heart, he was a fighter.” – Larry Merchant
“Everyone knows that Ali delighted in doing magic tricks for people but he possessed another kind of magic in his ability to make people feel somehow anointed with just a look and a touch.” – Keith Duggan, The Irish Times
“Muhammad Ali….was the most fantastical American figure of his era, a self-invented character of such physical wit, political defiance, global fame, and sheer originality that no novelist you might name would dare conceive him.” – David Remnick, The New Yorker
“As an athlete, Ali was touched by genius. The first phase of his career was about exuberance, speed and mobility. He challenged all the conventions of the ring. After his enforced absence, he turned to the other great facet of his character: stubbornness and bravery.” – Paul Hayward, London Telegraph
“Ali always was the only performer in any field of entertainment with the charm and the comedy and the improvisational brilliance to make an interview with Howard Cosell seem too short rather than too painfully, numbingly long.” – Dave George, Palm Beach Post
“The fact that Ali won the heavyweight championship three times is almost a sidebar to his being Ali, because as much as we revere the boxer we’ll always remember the man, flaws and all.” – George Willis, New York Post
“Muhammad Ali stood for what he believed….The only thing most athletes stand for these days is the photo shoot tied to their shoe endorsements.” – Rick Morrissey, Chicago Sun Times
Tom Archdeacon, the veteran sportswriter for the Dayton Daily News, relates a wonderful story about the time that the quick-witted Ali was actually one-upped. It happened on an airplane.
Stewardess: “Mr. Ali, please buckle your seat belt.”
Ali: “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”
Stewardess: “Mr. Ali, Superman don’t need no plane.”
Speaking of Superman, Ali defeated him in the pages of a 1978 D.C. comic, a 72-page, tabloid-sized special edition that was reprinted in hardback in 2010. Ali and the Man of Steel then joined forces to vanquish alien invaders, saving the planet from destruction.
How would Ali have fared in a match with Superman? The late Bert Randolph Sugar, the perfect foil for this sort of silliness, picked Ali in a whimsical 2010 interview with Jeffrey Renaud, a writer for Comic Book Resources: “Ali would be smart enough to step on his cape,” offered Sugar. “Besides, Superman may be faster than a speeding bullet but I think Ali is still faster.”
Old-time boxing fans, more than old-time fans of any other sport, have this thing about fantasy match-ups. Baseball fans don’t sit around debating how Joe DiMaggio would have fared against Clayton Kershaw, but one can ignite a lively debate by asking whether Gennady Golovkin would have defeated Marvin Hagler. And of all the boxers that have come down the pike, only Muhammad Ali was singled out for a fantasy fight with Superman.
The young Muhammad Ali, like the aforementioned Bert Sugar, was mischievous; he was fun. For those fortunate to have been there when Ali was at his most garrulous, it was a privilege.
Muhammad Ali: Paying Homage