Is Ali the Last American Hero? Who Else is There?Roundup
tags: sports, Muhammad Ali, Boxing
At least once a week, a stranger writing a book, magazine article, newspaper feature, or blog; representing a documentary film, radio serial, or podcast; researching a paper for middle school, high school, or college asks me for an interview about Muhammad Ali. I’m on the short list of live resources because I began covering him when he was Cassius Clay and I was starting out as a New York Times sports reporter.
Other than, I guess, Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ, the current go-to-guy for a quick symbolic fix of history, spirituality, and spectacle is that heavyweight boxer who called himself The Greatest. Somehow, he’s now right up there with two other once super-polarizing figures — the greatest American president and the greatest Christian of all time.
I’ve been wondering lately just how Ali actually reached such heights. There are plenty of people alive today who once hated him and yet, in American popular culture, he’s now a secular saint.
He would only have been 80 years old on January 17th. He died in 2016 at 74. While Lincoln and Christ were dramatically killed in their prime, Ali’s life began fading away before our eyes while he was still in his thirties. That was when he gradually began losing his voice (and oh, what a voice it was!), his mobility, and his expressive affect, first from the pummeling that boxing gave him and then from Parkinson’s Disease.
I rarely refuse interview requests about him. As one of a diminishing group of old, mostly white male journalists who knew Clay before he was champion, I feel an obligation to help set straight a willfully misinterpreted biography. I’m also always curious about why strangers are so fascinated by Ali and who they think he really was.