When Ali — the most electrifying, dazzlingly original, spiritually courageous, pugilistically lethal sports figure of the age— finally passed from the scene, there were the usual reflex reactions common to a nonstop era of ubiquitous information. Twitter exploded, demand for the You Tube videos of his championship bouts similarly went off the charts, and the talking heads of cable and broadcast television parsed his life into the manicured convenience of soundbites and commentary.
But the volume of praisesong that’s accompanied his passing couldn’t fill the vacuum that followed. We’re all still fighting to understand, more than a week after his departure, what he meant and what our lives mean now.
The Greatest is gone from our lives. WTF do we do now?
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It’s as if the roles of Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, the Three Fates of Greek mythology, are in our culture all performed by the same being — the hydra-headed creature that’s both the public and the media, the audience and the performer, at the same time.
The adulation that’s attended Ali’s passing has complicated enforcement of that unspoken tyranny, and for good reason. Muhammad Ali broke the fourth wall — not the one common to actors relating to their audience, but the one that, until Ali arrived, existed between prizefighters and their fans. Until Ali, and with only the notable exception of Joe Louis, boxers were often if not always willingly cast as bit players in their own drama, mumbling, shambling knuckleheads with little sense of themselves and their place in the wider world.
Ali shattered that illusion for good. With utterances and pronouncements that reflected an unstoppable self-confidence and an insatiable curiosity about the world around him, Ali was engagement personified. And when the world insisted that Ali buy into its nightmare dreams — that Ali sign up for a war he didn’t believe in, that Ali hold on to his government name, that Ali observe the obsequious rituals of interview — well ... he pushed back on that too.
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UNTIL, of course, he couldn’t fully engage with anyone. Until he couldn’t push back against the velocity of his history in the ring. The Parkinson’s disease that ravaged his body but left his mind intact was his constant companion since 1984. Never mind Frazier or Foreman or Holmes or Spinks: that disease was his toughest opponent.
We knew it as he receded from the public square he dominated in his prime, ushered into silence against his will. We knew it, without question, when he lit the torch at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta ... when he broke our hearts by accident.
How he did what he did was formidable; we watched while he trembled as a prisoner of the disease, shaking uncontrollably but soldiering on, gutting it out in a display of personal courage that made grown men weep. After everything, after all he’d been through for 30 years ... this may have been his finest moment.
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His exit was a bookend with his arrival. “No one had ever seen anything like it,” but then no one had ever seen anything like him. Even on his way out, he had something to teach us, everything to teach us, without uttering a word.
Such is the measure of this man. His life reverberates. His message continues to resonate. His heart still beats, in each of us.
All that he was, is still.