(photographic evidence the heavyweight division isn’t what it used to be — how come no contemporary sluggers have beat up The Libertines or The Strokes?).
As you’ve probably read, well, everywhere, 3-time heavyweight champion and civil rights advocate Muhammed Ali passed away last night at the age of 74.
Even the best Ali obits — of which this most certainly isn’t in the top 2000 — are gonna struggle to fully put the former Cassius Clay’s social and political impact in perspective because the world is so different today. Ali’s embrace of the Nation Of Islam — and insistence he be addressed by his new name wasn’t merely polarizing, it was downright terrifying to much of white America. His refusal to fight in Vietnam — a stance which cost him several of his prime fighting years — further served to vilify him in the eyes of much of the sports world, media and fans alike.
That Ali would ultimately be vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court and fight in some of the most memorable bouts of his or any generation (the first and third battle with Joe Frazier, the first of which might’ve been the most hotly anticipated sporting event in modern history) is remarkable enough, but Ali would also recapture his title against a heavily favored George Foreman in 1974 amidst a backdrop far more unique than your typical modern PPV.
None of which is to say Ali was infallible. Unquestionably of the great trash talkers of all-time, Ali’s treatment of Joe Frazier was in retrospect, inexcusable and deeply hurtful to man who also earned an important place in sports history. His 1975 battering of Chuck Wepner, despite inspiring the name of this blog, Sylvester Stalone’s creation of “Rocky” and Howard Cossel’s retirement from boxing commentary, probably never should’ve taken place. On the evidence of his losses to the lightly regarded Leon Spinks Jr. and Larry Holmes, Ali should’ve left the fight game far sooner. However, he wasn’t the first pugilist to hang around too long, and he was hardly the last, either.
It’s almost impossible to imagine any athlete — let anyone a prize fighter — meaning nearly as much to people around the world in 2016 as Muhammed Ali in his heyday. His combination of charisma, conscience, courage and wit set a bar that’s awfully high ; watching him fight was only one part of the equation.