One journalist's attempt to cut through partisan prejudices.

When he was king

Ali painting

Wikimedia Commons/ John Stango

We lost a legend yesterday. I don’t know that many of the kids today will realize just what Muhammad Ali meant to the world, not just the world of sport, just like many of my generation didn’t really understand what Martin Luther King meant to the world until many years after his assassination.

History books will dictate how much of an influence Ali has on future generations, though his influence on the world of boxing is already without question.

There’s a film about the first George Foreman/Muhammad Ali fight called When We Were Kings. It’s an appropriate title for not just the film and that specific fight, but for the era.

The world of boxing was gaining in popularity, and especially the heavyweight division to which the combatants belonged, and Ali was largely responsible for all of it. His personality not only made him what he was, but made the sport what it became.

In building up his persona, he built up the personas of those around him — those he fought — and none more than his two nemeses, Foreman and Joe Frazier, whom he beat and lost to on several occasions.

He would analyze the styles of those he fought and relay it to anybody who cared to listen (which turned out to be everybody), in the process bringing those characters to life while promoting his own star.

The native of Louisville, Kentucky talked up a great game. That’s why he was called “The Louisville Lip.”

He would hype a fight in all media — if the internet had been around back then, Ali would be a bigger social media sensation than Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Kevin Systrom combined — and by the time he was ready to answer the bell, there would be a global buzz (regardless of where it was held). Every event in which he participated (whether it was a fight in the ring or lighting a torch at the 1996 Olympics), was Wrestlemania, the Indy 500 and the World Cup Final all wrapped up into one.

In his heyday, he would have broken the internet more assuredly, and much more easily, than a Kim Kardashian butt shot.

He was a master showman, but also a sensational humanitarian, as demonstrated in the years after he left the brutality of the ring and reached out to political and cultural leaders as easily as he did to those struggling with illness or any other hardship, all the while bringing exposure to the person and the cause — whatever cause.

And perhaps it was this human trait — this caring for the welfare of others, all the while seemingly talking up only himself — that allowed him to promote an event to such heights and ensure that everybody involved, from the participants to the promoter to the media, benefitted from it and was richer (some financially; many spiritually) by the time it was over.

There weren’t many like him at the time and some would argue there still aren’t any today.

That’s what made him “The Greatest.”


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