The question comes up at some point every time I speak in public: Who was your favorite interview? My answer is always the same: It was Muhammad Ali.
My one and only encounter with Ali came in a benefit for George Chuvalo in Rochester in August of 1994. The odd thing is, Ali never said a word. The most memorable interview of my life wasn’t an interview at all.
More than 20 years ago, Parkinson’s had already robbed Ali of much of his ability to communicate. He wasn’t able to comment during the event. As I wrote at the time, it was like observing a ghost. But I was determined to ask at least one question of boxing’s greatest champion.
So after the dinner, I followed Ali into a hallway, where he was signing autographs and handing out Islamic messages. I asked him to nod yes or no.
Would boxing regain its magic if he was still around as a young fighter?
His handlers shuffled him into an elevator before he could respond. End of interview. It was a sad irony. At the time, it struck me that Ali’s greatest weapon, the ability to move people with language, had already died.
But as time went by, I realized that Ali no longer needed to utter a word to touch the world. Later in life, he became a living symbol, a messenger of humanity and hope. As Tim Graham wrote, Ali is an eternal ideal.
Ali’s death at age 74 didn’t silence him, any more than Parkinson’s could. His legend resonated as powerfully as his voice did during the 1960s, when he entertained sports fans with his rhyming verse and unsettled the nation with his brave, principled stands against racism and war.
Boxing, which was in steep decline two decades ago, could never be the same as it was in Ali’s day. The sport hasn’t been the same since Ali’s last fight with Joe Frazier, a brutal affair that some believe was a major cause of Ali’s eventual debilitation from Parkinson’s.
But his impact went far beyond the ring. The writer William Nack called him a “major social force.” Larry Merchant referred to him as a “singular force in pop culture ... who transcended not just his sport but all borders.”
Can you imagine any athlete being described that way today? We throw around the word “hero” much too readily nowadays. Ali wasn’t perfect, by any means. He said he would answer to God for his indiscretions as a husband and a man.
Still, Ali embodied many of the qualities we ascribe to great athletes: Courage, character, resilience. He liked to call himself pretty, but there was nothing pretty about his capacity for taking a punch. It probably contributed to the condition that diminished him later in life.
LeBron James, perhaps the best athlete of his generation, understands what Ali meant to the sports world, the planet, and to African-Americans in general.
“It was what he did outside the ring,” James said Friday on an off day in the NBA Finals, hours before news came of Ali’s passing.
James invoked the names of other black athletes who were known for making a social stand during the civil rights era. He mentioned Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor (who, like Ali, embraced Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), and of course, Jackie Robinson.
“Those guys stood for something,” James said.
Nowadays, the only thing most athletes bother to stand for is the national anthem. Ali decried the treatment of blacks in this country, joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay.
He refused induction into the armed services because he didn’t want to “continue the domination of white slave masters” over people of color. He said “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”
Can you imagine a pro athlete today taking a stand that would cause him to give up three and a half years of his athletic prime, not to mention the lost income involved? Agents, who rule the modern athlete, wouldn’t allow such a thing today.
Unlike most modern athletes, Ali used his talent and fame for something much larger than himself. No one had a bigger ego, but he loved being among the common people, and the little people loved him in return.
He was an international phenomenon, and he belonged to the world. At one time, he was the most famous man on Earth. Ali wanted to be an ambassador for peace, and he devoted much of his time after boxing to the cause. He won a UN Messenger of Peace award and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It’s an inconvenient contradiction, how this beloved messenger of peace was a man who chose Islam, a religion that has been manipulated and misunderstood and inspires so much blind hatred in today’s world.
At a time when candidates demonize Muslims for political gain, we can use Ali’s example as a guide. People around the globe saw him as a messenger of peace and love. He showed that religion, race, social status and wealth shouldn’t matter.
He expressed it through his vibrant, engaging personality. Ali was, at heart, an entertainer. He was playful, inventive and boastful, a reporter’s dream, with an instinctive genius for stealing the moment. He made an obscure announcer named Howard Cosell into a TV icon.
He and Cosell complemented each other perfectly. They were a doorway to a new age of sports as entertainment and personality. Like Joe Namath, Ali understood what was happening in the culture and how to use it to his advantage. But he was also willing to give it all up for his beliefs.
Ali had many detractors, of course, people who thought he was an ingrate and a traitor, or were motivated by sheer racism. Despite the public hosannas, I suspect he isn’t revered in the dark corners of our society where bigotry and hate still reside.
Asked how he would like to be remembered, Ali once said, “I guess I’d settle for being remembered as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people.”
I’d like to believe he meant all people, the people of the world, the ones who loved Ali for his essential humanity. He lent them his greatest gift, his voice. As we mourn his passing, it speaks to us still.