Last Friday a legend returned home.
Muhammad Ali died of septic shock at the age of 74, and for the third time this year, we lost an icon.
Ali transcended race, culture, and even the vapid and character-damaging arena of sports that he participated in.
Ali was always something of a hero of mine. My entire life, I’ve been outspoken in my beliefs. When I was in high school, more immature students belittled me for my full-throated support of Social Security means testing. At Wellesley, I faced protests for my Moderate Maverick editorials that both sides must be heard in the Apartheid debate. As a younger man I felt like yielding to popular opinion and vicious personal attacks, but then I remembered Ali, I felt strong.
Muhammad Ali sacrificed the best years of his career to prison because of his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Obviously, this was immature and not a good look, because when your government calls on you, you need to respect it. When I was called by my government in 2002 to report on Iraq’s nuclear dirty bomb ICBM pointed directly at Washington, D.C., I didn’t get scared for long. I worked up the courage to drive back to the Capital and do my duty as a patriot and a journalist.
Yet, although it was treason, Ali’s refusal to serve his country was a principled stand. I think both things can be true. Ali was a living example of seeing both sides in a debate. He gave me the courage I needed to stand up and say, “No, I will not say that balanced budgets are less important than child poverty.”
So, as my tribute to The Greatest, here are my top Ali moments.
Rumble In The Jungle
Caveat: I have never actually seen this fight, or really any boxing match (they’re too long, and it’s frankly a childish way to solve a disagreement or prove superiority). However, I’ve read about the details of this fight a few times, and here’s what I can surmise: Muhammad Ali and grill inventor George Foreman meet to fight in Zaire under the auspices of bold reformer Mobutu Sese Seko. Foreman batters Ali with brutal punches while Ali stings him with classic bon-mots, causing the one day cooking genius to get tired and angry. This culminates when Ali finishes him.
There’s a great lesson in this one: one of the best things you can do in a fight is to get beaten up horribly. In verbal skirmishes, this causes onlookers to notice how bad your opponent looks as they pulverize your self-esteem and reputation with vicious ad hominem attacks, until they say “that’s enough” and you’re declared the winner because you took the high road.
Just last week I was involved in a similar situation in front of the famously-dangerous Park Slope subway stop, where a gang of young teenagers — children, really — demanded to hold my wallet. I practiced my own version of the “rope-a-dope,” allowing the children to beat me mercilessly, appalling onlookers with their barbarism and thus winning me the argument. That victory is dedicated to Ali.
Match With Antonio Inoki
In 1976, Ali had a “mixed rules” match with Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki. It had a bizarre, almost arbitrary set of rules that resulted in Ali punching at air as Inoki scooted on his butt and kicked at Ali’s ankles. People declared it “boring” and “anticlimactic,” but I see the opposite: Ali’s willingness to step across the aisle and meet a pro wrestler halfway was a compromise that demonstrated his maturity after his grossly disrespectful act of refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. Yes, compromises don’t make everyone happy. But that’s their whole point. If No Labels were around at this time, Ali would have definitely been considered for recognition.
Wow, can you say, “Thank you”? Not contented with being a great sporpsball player (and honestly, no one should be), Ali decided that he would bless the world with the rhythm and rhymes of hip hop.
When the boxer would say things like “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” it planted the seeds of rap music that would later grow into a sapling (The Sugarhill Gang) that begat a mighty oak (Run-DMC) and flourished into today’s bustling forest of rap (Drake, J. Cole, Asher Roth, Macklemore, and others). When he first put words together in this rhyming manner, I don’t know if Ali knew that he would one day inspire musicians that both pundits and their sons could enjoy together. If he did, he was the greatest visionary of this century (next to Erskine Bowles).
So rest in power, Muhammad. You made me and many other patriots and pundits unafraid to embrace our unapologetic selves. Next time I hear some thunder while on the Acela line, I’ll know that you’re up there knocking out angels in God’s Heaven’s boxing ring.
Carl “The Dig” Diggler has covered national politics for 30 years, and is the author of “Think-ocracy: The Rise Of The Brainy Congressman”. Got a question for the Dig? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Tweet to @carl_diggler.
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