Ali Dead at 74
By Dan Cooper
“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” –Muhammad Ali
The man named Sportsman of the 20th Century has departed. One of the true icons of our civilization has passed from our midst. Impossible as it may seem for those of us old enough to remember his youth, Muhammad Ali is dead.
Ring announcer and journalist Howard Cosell might say--and indeed might actually have said of Ali--that he was an icon, and that he didn't so much create some of his iconic ring techniques, as he made them scintillatingly popular: The Ali shuffle; float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; rope a dope. He unquestionably introduced the mystique of poetry to boxing. His poetry was expressed in words, but even more powerfully in his majestically graceful ring performances.
Ali fought some of the most memorable prizefights in history. There were the three classic matches against Joe Frazier and fights that he was supposed to be incapable of winning against the brawler Sonny Liston and the immensely powerful George Foreman. When the boxer meets the puncher, acknowledged ring wisdom declares the victory usually goes to the puncher. But this consummate boxer took on the biggest and strongest of the punchers, and he beat them convincingly. And he did it with a style that was more unforgettable than any the ring has seen before or since.
In 1999 Sports Illustrated named Ali the Sportsman of the 20th Century and the title could easily have included the word, "undisputed." He was the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World, and after losing it regained that title an unprecedented twice more to become the only three-time heavyweight champion. That may have secured his place in history for the record books, but by that time he had already secured the title of Most Revered Athlete in the World in the hearts and minds of fans across the globe.
Also in 1999, the BBC voted Ali the Sports Personality of the Century. One of the more telling facts is that in this voting he received more votes than the combined total for all four of the other notable contenders for this honor. An Olympic Gold Medalist himself in 1960, nearly four decades later, his hands palsied but his eyes clear, he memorably lighted the Olympic Flame at the beginning of the 1996 games.
His accomplishments exceeded his ring exploits, leading his racial heritage to newfound heights and his country to a better place in multicultural acceptance, in reformulation of the concept of duty, and in shared societal identity. His stand against authority at the cost of his ability to continue his chosen career, refusing military service when it conflicted with more overarching ideals, cemented his place in our cultural heritage more than any performance in the ring could ever do, even by one as great as Muhammad Ali.
His many early critics have been long since silenced. That brash boastfulness he displayed early on was fully supported with performances in the ring. His career accomplishments will be respected as long as our culture endures. His long list of honors both in and out of the ring will do the same. But the greatest of all honors to be bestowed upon Muhammad Ali will be the number of tears shed in his memory the world over, on this, the day after his death.
Ali, your memory lives on. Thank you for those memories. A hero to millions, you remain forever The Greatest. Thank you, and rest easy now. This fight is over. And you won.