Muhammad Ali had already been fighting Parkinson’s for 14 years when I was born. He’d long been silenced and weakened; the man who could knock out Superman now struggled to walk. That’s the Ali I grew up with: Ali the human. I heard about the fights, the trash talk, and the draft. Well, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t hear about Ali as much as I read about him. In my room, on top of a bookshelf, I have a boxing glove signed by The Greatest. This is as fitting a place as any for Ali memorabilia, because right there with Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield, Muhammad Ali is one of my literary heroes, one of those characters whose adventures always find a way to inform my own and warm my heart.
In the scores of tributes that have been written about him this week, the phrase you keep seeing thrown around to describe Ali is “larger than life”. And he was. He was layered, introspective, brutally honest, and flawed, too. He spoke in a way no athlete ever had spoken, and in fact in a way very few people had ever spoken. Like a master author, he poured his heart into his every word, telling us just what he was thinking as he journeyed through every day. He lived his life like the narrator of a novel.
It’s no surprise then that no man inspired as much beautiful writing about his life than Ali. In the mammoth, gold-covered collection “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century,” there is not a section devoted solely to baseball or basketball or football. All sports are lumped to together into “On Deadline” or “Features”. And then there’s an entire section simply titled “The One and Only”. Everyone who is anyone in sportswriting has their Ali story – Gary Smith, Hunter S. Thompson, Mark Kram. Even figures outside of the press box couldn’t help from being pulled into Ali’s orbit: Roger Ebert, Dave Remnick, President Obama.
As a wannabe writer, I gobbled up all the stories, each one becoming a new chapter to shade in a more complete picture of the title character. They focused on The Greatest at different stages of his life, were written from different perspectives and under different circumstances. But one thing was always consistent, no matter whose name was in the byline: Ali’s voice reverberated on each page as if he typed it himself.
And so, I read and I read and I read. I read about his travels to Maine and Africa and the Philippines. I read about his fights against Frazier and Foreman and the U.S. government. He hopped from episode to episode, each one raising the stakes a little more, but he always stayed so sure of himself, so confident, all while still recognizing his humanity. He had the heart of Atticus Finch and the killer charm of James Bond. His sayings became as quoted as Shakespeare’s.
The best book ever written about sports was about – what else? – the Rumble in the Jungle. It’s called The Fight, and it’s by Norman Mailer. When you read it, you forget it’s all true, and then you have to remind yourself again and again that all of it did in fact happen and that this Ali guy is real. He’s too introspective and too analytical for a professional athlete. He was, truly, larger than life, and around him, all things gained heightened significance. Mailer describes the knockout like the world skipped a breath:
Foreman’s arms flew out to the side like a man with a parachute jumping out of a plane, and in this doubled-over position he tried to wander out to the center of the ring. All the while his eyes were on Ali and he looked up with no anger as if Ali, indeed, was the man he knew best in the world and would see him on his dying day. Vertigo took George Foreman and revolved him. Still bowing from the waist in this uncomprehending position, eyes on Muhammad Ali all the way, he started to tumble and topple and fall even as he did not wish to go down. . . . He went over like a six-foot sixty-year-old butler who has just heard tragic news.
And then, of course, there’s the way Ali told his own story. He was a master of words, giving us rich interior monologues when we were only expecting another sound bite. His answers had meaning, and they had symbolism. Surely, he was prepared. He had to be. Surely this was the second, third, no, fourth draft of the author’s prose. But no. He really did just have something to say, and he said it beautifully, like when he was asked about the Nation of Islam after he first defeated Sonny Liston in 1964:
“Listen. In the jungle, lions are with lions and tigers with tigers, and redbirds stay with redbirds and bluebirds with bluebirds. That’s human nature, too, to be with your own kind. I don’t want to go where I’m not wanted.
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” he told reporters. “I’m free to be who I want.”
The lions are with the lions and the tigers with the tigers, and now, finally, Ali can be with his own kind. There just aren’t any others like him down here on Earth. But lucky for us, he’ll never totally be gone. If you ever miss him, just open a book.