In our grief, we often grope for superlatives. I get that. Eulogies rarely praise the departed as merely a good guy; we are expected to say that the person we’re mourning was the best.
Muhammad Ali was indisputably a great boxer and ultimately a good human being. But Ali himself would reject many of the absurd superlatives heaped upon him in the days since he died.
He was not the greatest boxer ever, nor even the best fighter of the 20th century. Ali told anyone who would listen that those honors belong to Sugar Ray Robinson. The world welterweight champion from 1946–51, Sugar moved up to middleweight in the midst of a 92-bout unbeaten streak. In that heavier division, Robinson reigned as world champion from 1951–52, retired, and then returned to reclaim the title in 1955, ’56, ’57 and ’58. Sugar was the greatest boxer, pound for pound, of the 20th century and in the history of the sport to date, not just in Ali’s mind, but also according to every credible authority, including SI, the Associated Press, The Ring, ESPN, and the International Boxing Research Organization.
Ali was not even the world’s greatest heavyweight. That distinction belongs to Joe Louis, the world champion from 1937–49. Of course, his finest moment came against Max Schmeling in 1938. The German fighter had dealt Louis his sole prior defeat in a 1936 knockout. Hitler expressed confidence that the rematch would reconfirm Nazi claims of Aryan superiority. Instead, the Brown Bomber blasted Schmeling with a blitzkrieg of fisted fury. The fight lasted just two minutes and four seconds.
Muhammad Ali was neither the greatest sportsman of the 20th century nor “the greatest athlete the world will ever see.” We cannot know the future, but the greatest male athlete of the last century and all of recorded history was clearly Jim Thorpe, who lettered in a dozen college sports and won Olympic gold in the decathlon and pentathlon before dabbling in professional baseball and basketball while dominating the professional gridiron and helping to found what is now the NFL.
Was Ali “the greatest Black athlete in history”? No. That accolade probably belongs to Jim Brown, who played four sports in college, won All-American honors in football and lacrosse, and became the best running back the NFL has ever seen.
Nor was Ali “the greatest American Muslim.” That distinction probably belongs to his friend Malcolm X, ultimately a far more inspiring figure who became a Sunni and rejected racism more than a decade before Ali did. (An honorable mention should go to Dr. Mona Hanna-Atisha, the young pediatrician who exposed Michigan’s unconscionable poisoning of Flint’s water supply.)
The day after Ali died, CBS quoted Andrew Zimmern lamenting that “we lost the world’s greatest human being yesterday.” I had never heard of that guy, either, but apparently his status as a “celebrity chef” qualifies him to identify the most distinguished member of our species. While it takes undoubted skill to concuss opponents in a boxing ring, it is possible that our society should reserve higher esteem for Nobel Peace Prize laureates like Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Tributes to Ali universally lauded his supposedly principled refusal to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. Although he ultimately won his case on a technicality, Ali never could have qualified for a draft exemption as a conscientious objector, because he was clearly not a pacifist. He expressed willingness to wage jihad for the Nation of Islam, but declined to serve the country that made him a millionaire many times over.
His belief in killing for religion was more than merely theoretical. When the Black Muslims assassinated his friend Malcolm X for leaving the Nation of Islam, Ali made no comment and remained with the cult for more than a decade. To his credit, the boxer ultimately left the sect, became an orthodox Muslim, and later expressed regret for his friend’s death.
Many remembrances have weirdly lauded Ali as a “civil rights hero.” While his defiant spirit certainly inspired many African Americans in the ’60s and ’70s, the fighter’s rhetoric and actions mocked and explicitly rejected the Civil Rights Movement. Ali’s famous smack talk was calculated showmanship usually scripted by white ghostwriters, but that in no way excuses the blunt racism of denouncing Joe Frazier — a darker-skinned opponent — as a “gorilla” and calling several opponents “Uncle Toms.” Nor does it justify Ali’s segregationist slam on Floyd Patterson:
“I’m gonna put him flat on his back,
So that he will start acting black,
Because when he was champ he didn’t act like he should,
He tried to force himself into an all-white neighbourhood”.
When the Civil Rights Movement reached out to Ali, he refused to join:
“I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be, when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration getting blowed up. They get hit by stones and chewed by dogs and they blow up a Negro church and don’t find the killers. I get telephone calls every day. They want me to carry signs. They want me to picket. They tell me it would be good for brotherhood. I don’t want to be blown up. I don’t want to be washed down sewers. I just want to be happy with my own kind.
“I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, but… I know how to dodge booby traps and dogs. I dodge them by staying in my own neighborhood. I’m no troublemaker. I don’t believe in forced integration. I know where I belong.”
“The greatest” was not done giving aid and comfort to segregationists. In 1968, Ali expressed admiration for the white supremacist presidential candidate George Wallace. He claimed to have attended a Ku Klux Klan rally to speak against interracial marriage. As late as 1975, he argued that “A black man should be killed if he’s messing with a white woman,” and that African American men should “kill anybody who tries to mess around with our women.”
Years later, after he left the Nation of Islam, Ali rejected racism, but by then, the movement was over, and he made no discernible impact. If we wish to praise actual civil rights leaders other than the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then I nominate Bayard Rustin, a brilliant movement strategist and organizer.
We miss the central tragedy of Ali’s life if we fail to face the fact that the Nation of Islam ruined him. It kept him out of the Civil Rights Movement when he really could have made a difference. The sect bled him financially. By the early ’70s, the boxer wanted out, but feared the cult would assassinate him like Malcolm X if he quit. His quixotic fight against conscription had cost him several years in the prime of his career, but in the late ’70s, after his doctors urged him to hang up his gloves, Ali’s Black Muslim handlers pushed him to keep fighting so they could keep claiming a cut of his earnings. By the time he gathered the courage to leave, the Nation of Islam had already used him up and set in motion his long, slow death. As The Telegraph put it, “By exchanging his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay for the one that [the Black Muslims] bestowed on him, he merely exchanged one form of perceived servitude for another form that was all too real and irretrievably damaging.”
Against all odds, Ali redeemed himself late in life. As a United Nations Messenger of Peace, he supported worthy causes around the world. By all accounts, he was consistently kind and generous to his fans. For decades, he fought valiantly against Parkinson’s Disease. Most recently, he spoke out courageously against the bigotry of Donald Trump.
By the end, Ali had certainly become a good man. Maybe great. Just not the greatest.