I saw Muhammad Ali in the flesh once.
This was at the Essence Awards way back in the 90’s.
Comedian Sinbad, the host, was making off-color jokes about the “flexibility” of gymnast and recent Olympian Dominique Dawes and from where I sat I had a cat’s eye view of the rear profile of The Greatest.
What struck me most were the lines of his body.
I remember thinking “No wonder!”
I mean, I knew that he was 6’3″ and in his prime usually fought between 212lbs and 215lbs, but I was still caught off guard by the sheer magnitude of the man.
I couldn’t even fathom being that size and being able to move like Ray Robinson.
It defied the laws of physics.
I grew up in an Ali household.
Well, two actually. Mom and dad had split but both were Ali fans.
I remember watching the Champ fight Richard Dunn on ABC one night with my dad.
You know you’re old when you can remember heavyweight championship fights coming on network television.
Makes you get all ironic to think that Ali lived until you got old.
And a lot is going to be said and written but nothing is going to put the man in perspective.
How can it?
How can any life be “summed up” particularly one like Ali’s?
Suffice it to say, trust what you read if it mentions how great a fighter he was.
The world will only be tolerant of all of you if one part of you is so unique that you can hold its rarity hostage.
And that’s ultimately what Muhammad Ali had to do with his boxing ability.
Why he faced that moment that makes men – that all men face – that says “compromise or get broken” and he had the audacity to say, “I’ll do neither,” all eyes were upon him.
Those that had compromised looked on in hatred; as they always do, as they must.
Those that had been broken looked on with a glimmer of hope thinking maybe this one will get through, and if he does, well then there’s hope for the rest of us.
Three years later, unbroken, but having the prime of his boxing career stripped from him for refusing induction into the military as a conscientious objector, Ali was back.
Now, conventional wisdom says that Ali wasn’t much of a puncher but like Richard Pryor once joked, he was “steady knocking motherfuckers out!”
My theory was that big, manly heavyweights would have rather had their toenails painted pink then get KO’d by a man with a face as pretty as Ali.
All that’s besides the point, though.
What is or at least what may be the point as we now lose this symbol of all our best ideals is that there are still giants among us, breathing, even now.
And if we can feel no other way, it should be grateful for having shared some time alive and on the same planet with a man like Ali.
We were here while he was here, a part of his world as he was a part of ours.