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.