Muhammad Ali was a unique brand of American hero. I think his greatness can best be recognized in hindsight—50 years removed—because he was so in-your-face during a particularly tumultuous time in our nation’s history.
Civil rights marches and riots. The Vietnam War. Violent protest. Assassinations of aspirational public figures. Richard Nixon and political scandal. It’s the traumatic events of the 60s and 70s that stand out after all these years.
Ali’s persona, oscillating the way it did between poetic profundity and bombastic bravado, must’ve been a defense mechanism to deflect the unapologetic hatred spat at him. Watch the video below; you can see in his face that David Susskind’s hateful words hurt him. Although he could take a physical or verbal punch better than the rest of us he wasn’t a machine. He was all too human. Nobody can shrug off blatant disapproval without being destroyed or having to struggle with why it shouldn’t destroy them.
Notice the instantaneous flinch, quicker than a left-hook jab, that darts across his face when Susskind says, “He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession.”
Nobody, not even Ali is his prime, is unaffected by hate.
Like the rest of us, Ali was flawed. Like the archetypal hero, he was more flawed than the rest of us. Without those, his physical greatness would be inhuman. Separate and unrelatable. At the end of the day he was African American, subject to the same indignities any second class citizen experiences as their birthright.
What made him an American hero wasn’t his failures, it was his bravery. The kind of bravery he portrayed was the sort that people defend philosophically but are usually afraid to practice. The government tried to ship him out to Vietnam, he said no, fuck you, I’m not going (albeit, more colorfully, his recorded words were: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”).
Public figures today, they have no voice, no opinion. They’re happy to be rich and have the spotlight for the spotlight’s sake. Brash and outspoken maybe for entertainment’s sake, but quick witted and fiercely intelligent? They don’t make them like Ali anymore.
The reason most of us never exercise our hallowed rights to freedom of speech and outright sedition isn’t that we never have a righteous opportunity to do so. It’s that we’re afraid to do so. Ali wasn’t afraid. He felt the resistance, processed it somehow, and then did what he thought was right and said what was on his mind with verve and intellect. Something that the rest of us are rarely ever brave enough to do.