Editor’s Note: Muhammad Ali died Friday night in Phoenix at the age of 74. Earlier in the day, several hours before learning of his passing, EBONY.com published the article below to pay a living homage to the champ. Click here to read our obituary.
I know I am writing this too soon. I meant to do that.
When I was a poor, 21-year-old graduate student making less than $18,000 a year, I spent $336 on a photograph, and another $200 having it mounted and framed. It has hung in every home I have lived in since then, and if any of them ever caught on fire, it is the proverbial item that I would run in to save.
My most prized possession? A picture of Cassius Clay standing over a concussed Sonny Liston. That piece of art is one of the most iconic snapshots in history, and it captures one of the most unbelievable upsets in sports. For me, however, it is simply a photograph of greatness.
“I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I’m the greatest thing that ever lived. I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world. I talk to God everyday. I know the real God. I shook up the world, I’m the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest!” – Muhammad Ali
Eulogies are useless.
One day, hopefully not soon, we will all awake and our Facebook feeds will be filled with tears and tributes. There will be photo montages set to heartwarming melodies and touching testimonials about the strength and fearlessness Muhammad Ali exhibited, but we should not wait until then. Everyone waxes poetic when it is too late for the person to hear it, but I want to do this early. I do not want to be among the masses of sympathy-suckers writing think-piece odes on the sad day when this hero exits this plane of existence. I occasionally chuck hyperbole around, and I am often filled with bluster, but there should be no controversy about this:
Muhammad Ali is the greatest Black man who ever lived.
I know you’re going to argue for men like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X or James Evans from “Good Times” (all are on my short list) but I’m not just talking about impact on the lives of others, or contributions to society. I mean great. Great in the classic definition of the word. Great in the sense of better than good. Great in the way that God is.
They even call him The Greatest.
In the infinite history of warriors, Ali was the greatest warrior of them all. In the history of orators, he was Cicero, and Malcolm and Martin, and Martin Luther, and King. He was funnier than your favorite comedian, and smarter than your professor. He was personality, artist, protester, and poet—he was as great at any of those things than anyone has ever been.
And he could fight.
“It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”
Perhaps the most under-appreciated aspect of Ali’s life was his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. He said no. When officials reminded him that he wouldn’t actually be a soldier, but rather an ambassador like the others celebrities who had been drafted before him, he still said no. When they reminded him that the weight of the most powerful country on Earth, and the mightiest army in the history of world was against him, he still said no. At the time, Ali was the richest athlete in all of sports, the heavyweight champion of the world, and the most famous human being on the planet. Still, he took all of that, put it in a bag and handed it back to them. They told him they would put him in jail, and because of nothing more than his morals and what he believed was right, he still said no.
That is a man.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
They say George Foreman punched as hard as a mule kick, and they thought he would knock Muhammad Ali out. Some even feared he would actually kill Ali in the ring. Instead, Ali introduced the world to the “Rope-A-Dope” technique. It is not insignificant that he did this in Africa–and not in light-skinned, they-call-it-the-Middle-East Africa, either. He did this in the heart of the Motherland, in sub-Saharan, dark-skinned Zaire. Ali leaned on the ropes and let the most powerful puncher in the world hit him with all his might until that puncher got tired, then he knocked him out.
Countless people have waxed poetic about how smart and ingenious Ali’s plan was, but no one ever mentions how much it must have hurt. Those eight rounds were all there is or will ever be, in the universe. That is all you need to know about life: Be strong enough to withstand the pain. Be patient enough to wait for the right time to throw your punch. Be ready. Knock out.
Perhaps it is better for heroes to be supernovas–to explode suddenly, burn brightly and then flame out. Like Tupac. Like Malcolm. Sadly, we tend to forget about, or discard, them when they burn long and steady. But whoever your hero is, Ali did that too… and probably just as good, if not better.
And he could fight.
“If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how. Hitch him up.”
I will not wait until he is dead and my voice is drowned out. Muhammad Ali is not my role model, because I do not believe in such. I will never be as strong as Muhammad Ali. I will never be as swift as him. I will never be as steadfast in my beliefs. I will never be as smart. I will never be as eloquent. Instead, I stole his catchphrase and keep it in my pocket. For him, it might have been an off-the-cuff witty remark, or something that sounded simultaneously boastful and cool at the time. For me, it is a proverb. The greatest Black man who ever lived gave me instructions for life. I wake up every morning and say it like a mantra, like a prayer.
Rumble, young man…
*Republished with permission from NegusWhoRead.
Michael Harriot has contributed to Deadspin, VerySmartBrothas, TheRoot as well as his own daily digital magazine NegusWhoRead. He also hosts The Black One podcast and tweets at @michaelharriot