Muhammad Ali is dead. Words fail

ali_quarry (1)

Oct. 20, 1970: The comeback fight versus Jerry Quarry at Municipal Auditorium. (Joe Holloway Jr./AP)

Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali its Sportsman of the Century, which was and is a big deal. But here we ask: Had Sports Illustrated existed in the 1800s — it was founded in 1954 — who’d have been its Sportsman of the 19th Century? Cap Anson? John L. Sullivan? Pudge Heffelfinger?

When a man like Ali dies, we struggle for words — and those words right there underscore the scope of the struggle. In the wide world of sports (and not just the wide world of sports), there’d never been a person “like” Ali. Before the 20th Century, sports were quaint local things. There was no real radio, no TV, no Howard Cosell, no Internet. If you knew that Cap Anson played for the Chicago White Stockings, you lived in Chicago.

It was impossible to become a worldwide sports figure before the 20th Century because the infrastructure didn’t exist. Ali was among the first truly worldwide sports figures — Jesse Owens and Pele were others — and in that select circle he was, as ever, The Greatest. We didn’t have to live in Louisville, Ky., to know him. Folks in Peoria knew him, same as the folks in the Philippines. (See, “Thrilla in Manila, The.”)

We knew him not just as a boxer but as a person. He made his rhymes. He beat Sonny Liston. He broke out the Ali Shuffle. He changed his name. He refused induction to the Army. He lost 3 1/2 years at what would have been the peak of his career and still held us rapt throughout the ’70s.

Anyone living during that decade could measure out the years according to famous Ali fights: Quarry, Frazier, Norton, Norton again, Frazier again, Foreman in the Rumble in Jungle, Frazier in the Thrilla, Spinks, Spinks again. Ali was the towering sports figure of the first century in the history of humankind where sports mattered.

But enough. No matter what these fingers type, they’ll never do the great man justice. So I’ll stop. Muhammad Ali is dead, and we’re all sad. But we’re better because he lived.

Muhammad Ali: The greatest, and not just as a boxer.

Reader Comments 0

24 comments
TrueFan1
TrueFan1

Mark Bradley let me help you when words fail: Um, He's dead

CedricM
CedricM

how did Ali make me better?

Gomez Addams
Gomez Addams

I still wish my folks would have let me go down to the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium to watch him fight Jerry Quarry. 

Ga PT3
Ga PT3

Jerry Quarry was huge in size he visited my HS in NY way back when about that time frame.  Its Ali this and that.  lol.  Ali's boxing style was so unique nothing like it before or since.  He kept those hands dropped sometimes.  He was fast but really accurate and his timing was a marvel.  I guess people never noticed when he was dancing its was like jumping rope.  Was he the greatest I dunno.  But deal was I am still mesmerized by his style of boxing it was hypnotic and so good.  No one ever learned it. They are saying all kinds of things about all kinds of topics today.  I will never get over the way he boxed

creative
creative

@Ga PT3 agree good post.  I am too young to have seen him live, but from all I have read and seen, I tend to agree

Lilah Kelly
Lilah Kelly

A real man in every sense of the word!

Zletr Blake
Zletr Blake

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, RIP Muhammad Ali.

Aunt T
Aunt T

First of all, words may fail, but if you have not done so, check out Luckovich's cartoon for today. He just knows how to nail these things.

There is a pantheon of sports figures whose influence extends far beyond their sport, but Ali has his own pedestal above the others. He was one of a kind.

unknown007
unknown007

Words failed on covering and honoring 9 dead soldiers at Ft Hood.  Words seem to flow like the raging Ft Hood river on the death of this draft dodger who refused to wear our uniform, unlike these 9 dead patriots.

slydawg
slydawg

You cannot be serious, especially after you voted for GWB....

Michael S. Griffin
Michael S. Griffin

Marlin I wouldn't fight for you knowing when I got home you'd turn your back on me. Only a fool thinks that way.

Fung Shea
Fung Shea

Marlin lacks the understanding but he wants to comment. His opinion does not matter.

Michael S. Griffin
Michael S. Griffin

"I ain't draft dodging. I ain't burning no flag. I'm not moving to Canada. I'm staying right here! You want to send me to jail? Fine. Go ahead because I've been there for 400 years. I could spend 4 or 5 more, but I ain't going 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I will die right here, right now fighting you, if I want to die! You're my enemy not the Chinese, no Vietcong, and no Japanese. You're my oppressor when I want freedom, you're my oppressor when I want justice!" #TheGreastest

Aunt T
Aunt T

My late father was retired USAF. He and Ali were the same age. Dad served in Vietnam (volunteered). Everything I know about Ali, I know because my father respected him completely. I remember reading about the draft issue and asking my dad about it. He said that he had chosen to serve to preserve the rights of others to say "my faith won't let me do this." He was personally against the draft, which is why he volunteered.

What people tend to overlook when discussing the situation is that he requested a waiver as a conscientious objector. The normal investigators approved it, but in a very, very rare move, the approval was negated by the FBI (under J. Edgar's policies on dealing with "agitators.") SCOTUS overturned the conviction in 1971.


Ali was not asking for special treatment. He was asking for what he saw as his right to not be forced to go against his beliefs. The argument that he was a boxer so it should not be a problem is illogical. In the ring, Ali's opponent was willing, and he was not trying to kill or even badly hurt someone. In war, not everyone who is hurt or killed is a combatant. 


He also had every chance to go to Canada (in fact, he went for a fight and was furious when a reporter asked if he was staying.) He refused to give up his birthright .... period. He knew staying in the US and pursuing his case might mean not just jail but the end of his career (certainly of the best years of it). He took that risk. It was a fight of another type.

PaulinNH
PaulinNH

" Folks in Peoria knew him, same as the folks in the Philippines." 

And undergrads in the UK - I'll never forget staying up until some ungodly hour in the morning to watch the Rumble in the Jungle in the College TV room.  It was full and we were all cheering for Ali.  RIP The Greatest.

ATJR
ATJR

August's 20th anniversary of the Atlanta Olympic Games will never be the same now as the icon who lit the Olympic cauldron, Muhammad Ali, has joined the other legends in the sky. I will never forget being in attendance that hot, steamy night, because no one knew the identity of "the one" until he received the flame from swimmer Janet Evans.

The roar that went up from Olympic Stadium was one of my greatest sports memories, yet, I will never forget being scared that something would happen as the effects of Parkinson's made cauldron a bit difficult.

Thankfully, I got a chance to watch him fight in person in 1978 when he took the heavyweight championship for his third and final time when he defeated Leon Spinks at the Louisiana Superdome. It was an electric night, and everywhere he went, he was brought that same electricity.

Ali was a pioneer in so many ways, and he was the most significant athlete of my generation. A global icon, he will never be forgotten. His spirit will live on forever.

I hear him clearly as I type this, "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee...his hands can't hit what his eyes can't see."

Heaven has gained another champion. Get ready Smokin' Joe and Howard Cosell, your friend - the showstopper - is coming to join you again. Keep it quiet up there.

He was the Greatest...of all time. Rumble, young man, rumble.