Saturday, June 04, 2016

Ali

I don't think anyone much under 60 can quite imagine the effect Muhammad Ali had on his times which, second only to the Civil War, a conflict that his birth (he called it later his "slave") name invoked, were the most complex and transformative in the nation's history. The Times today, in the headline to Bob Lipsyte's beautifully-wrought obit, got it exactly right. He was a titan of the 20th century.

Yrs truly got his first boxing lessons at age ten, the same year that Ali beat Sonny Liston for the second time to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. To be an Italo-American boy growing up in western New York in the 60s was to be a fight fan, and to be a young fight fan meant falling under Ali's spell. Certainly there was no one like him, in what were the waning days of American Apartheid. His audacity, his youth, his otherworldly skills, his overwhelming beauty, probably did more to form my ideas about race, sport, and politics as I grew up, and as he matured into a truly great man, than any other public figure. I hope no one gets too angry at me for putting it this way, but Dr. King and Malcolm X, were statesmen, they needed to state their cases, present the facts, tell the truth. Ali used his body in no less powerful or subtle ways as those men used their minds and voices, while also bringing to bear a great mind and voice of his own. For about twelve intense years, Ali was the facts, he was the case, he was the truth. Best of all, he knew it, and wasn't afraid to say so, too.

To live at that time meant you did not watch Ali so much as feel him. Even in his long eclipse, when he might have otherwise added so much more to the American dialogue, you could feel his presence. Now we feel his loss. and I am sadder about that more than I can say.