The Greatest of All Time

Muhammad Ali peers over a copy of his autobiography, "The Greatest: My Own Story," in Frankfurt, Germany, on October 10, 1975.

Last Saturday morning, my Twitter and Facebook accounts exploded with the news, tributes, and recollections: Muhammad Ali, dead at 74.

That haymaker hit me like a death in the family.

No public figure made a more positive impression on me than the former heavyweight champion, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., but everyone on this planet knew him by his self-imposed nickname—The Greatest.

Sure, Ali was an outstanding boxer. By most accounts—including his own—he is the greatest of all time. I’m no boxing fan; in fact, I’ve always hated blood sports, and boxing is the bloodiest of them all. Still, as a college kid in 1975, I vaguely recall listening to a round-by-round broadcast of the Thrilla in Manila, Ali’s brutal third battle with Joe Frazier. And I vividly remember cheering until my throat was sore hours after the fight ended.

Ali’s power over me had nothing—nothing at all—to do with his considerable talents in the ring. It was his life—spanning my childhood into my adolescence and even now beyond middle-age—that I have admired for as long as I can remember.

Ali represents what beautiful, bold, black manhood can be. To have lived his life, it didn’t matter to me that he was a pugilist. He challenged the leading conventions of his day, including the Christian church, after he became an acolyte of Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam. And he fought and defeated the U.S. government by refusing to bear arms in the Vietnam War.

For me—a black boy who came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s—any brother who could pull off those feats was worthy of admiration. His occupation was unimportant to me; he could have just as easily been a pharmacist, plumber, or preacher, as long as he lived a life that grand, noble, and free.

Of course, being a free black man has its price, and Ali paid dearly. He was denied access to boxing for 3.5 years at the prime of his career. Yet, when all the legal wrangling ended, Ali stood unbowed and correct. Within four years of returning to boxing, he regained the heavyweight champion title in 1974 with an upset victory—The Rumble in the Jungle in Kinshasa, Zaire—over George Foreman.

I met my idol not very long after I had revived my voice from cheering his victory over Frazier. He spoke to students who were crowded into the Carmichael Auditorium, a campus space that was accustomed to containing the cheers for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s beloved basketball team. On this particular afternoon, though, the cheers were for Ali. And they were loud.

Ali was a family friend of one of my classmates at Carolina. She invited Ali to address the student body, and he agreed, delivering a well-received speech on “The True Meaning of Friendship.”

According to the recollections of a reporter who covered the speech, Ali was accompanied on stage by a Carolina student, who at one point took a playful swing at The Greatest. “You hit me?” Ali mock-shouted at the student. “If you even dreamed you hit me, wake up and apologize!”

I was able to get close enough to shake Ali’s hand and I remember being shocked at how soft his giant palm felt. Later, I posed for pictures with him and bought a copy of his then just-published biography. Here’s a sidebar note: Ali’s biography, The Greatest: My Own Story, is an excellent read, in part because it was edited by Toni Morrison—who would later become a Nobel Prize-winning novelist. I proudly own a copy with an Ali autograph on the cover page.

Ali’s death wasn’t a complete surprise. The pounding he took in the ring rendered him into a shell of the brash and bold man he had been in his younger days. He retired from boxing in 1981; thereafter, the ravages of Parkinson’s disease took the floating from his feet and the sting out of his fist. Yet, the prideful example of what made him The Greatest remains—even after his life is gone.

Tributes to Ali continue to roll past me on social media. A favorite of mine—written by William C. Rhoden of The New York Times—notes, “Muhammad Ali was an ungentrified black man.” Rhoden—who, over the course of his career as a sportswriter, covered Ali—described the man he knew behind the scenes and out of the limelight:

What I gleaned from Ali’s life, as I’ve lived mine, is that the goal is not to go through life undefeated. The quest is to exercise resilience and come back stronger.

Beloved by much of the world, Ali was nonetheless consistently, unapologetically black.

Such truth has nothing to do with boxing and everything to do with life. For that alone, I will forever love Muhammad Ali.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.