Muhammad Ali’s death at the age of 74 brought to a close the life of one of the modern age’s best boxers at any weight class. But he was always more than just a boxer. Not content to dominate his sport for competition’s sake, he used his championship as a pedestal from which he could rail against the racial injustices present in American society. He protested against the establishment in war and religion, and not without some justification. And after he retired from boxing in 1981, he spent the rest of his days as an ambassador for his sport and for humanitarian causes across the globe. In the end few could doubt that Ali was a great. His legacy, always larger than life, will likely be even larger in death. It is a legacy he earned. But it is a Muhammad Ali legacy…not an American one.
Ali was a born contrarian who could back up his talk with his fists. His stint in amateur boxing has a gilt edging that few boxers since have replicated, with multiple state and national championships and a medal winning performance at the 1960 Summer Olympic games. Ali’s 100-5 amateur record was more than sufficient to gain him an entree into professional boxing, where he quickly amassed a 19-0 record. He became famous for running his mouth, talking trash well before talking trash in professional sports was generally acknowledged, if never accepted. Belittling his opponents before and during matches, his victories silenced his critics as well as the boxers unlucky enough to be in the ring with him.
All that greatness, however, remained essentially hollow. Reveling in the trappings of being at the peak of a profession made possible by the American political and economic system, he rejected that system and all that it stood for. He valued the gold medal that he won as part of the U.S. Olympic team so little that he carelessly lost it within a year of winning it. He refused to be drafted into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War despite risking a prison sentence that could end his career (even though the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on a technicality, he still lost four years of boxing during his prime). He stridently advocated black separatism well into his career, often not sounding much different from the white bigots that plagued the country at that time. Ali was careful to never renounce his country, but he never embraced it either. Other people were welcome to fight and die in unpopular wars, other athletes were welcome to wave the flag on the front of cereal boxes, other people were welcome to be law abiding and constructive citizens, and other people were welcome to embrace solidarity and equality. Ali was about Ali, and that was about it.
His selfish attitudes weren’t enough to make him a pariah. He was often an inspiration to African-American athletes during his reign and for years afterward, and to black Americans in general. Here was a person who aspired to greatness and refused to be pulled down by injustice, racism, and a lack of economic opportunity. He showed it was possible to remain true to one’s self while using perseverance to overcome life’s obstacles. And his lifelong support of international diplomacy set an invaluable example.
So was Muhammad Ali a great American? No. But he left an indelible mark on U.S. history–a critical footnote to the triumphant changes in civil rights of the 1960s and 1970s. It is fortunate that the country weathered that period without too much permanent economic and strategic damage. It gives us the luxury of issuing magnanimous eulogies to those that lived not so altruistically through it.
2/7/2018 update. In 2008 Sports Illustrated renamed its Sportsman Legacy Award the Muhammad Ali Legacy Award in order to “to honor former athletes and sports figures who embody the ideals of sportsmanship, leadership and philanthropy as vehicles for changing the world.” In other words, athletes and sports figures who use their fame to promote their political ideology in a manner that Sports Illustrated thinks is worthwhile. 2017’s recipient? Colin Kaepernick.