The icon we needed

Muhammad Ali's boxing success gave him a stage but his voice captivated the audience

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No athlete has been more written about, talked about, rhapsodized and eulogized and defined and redefined than Muhammad Ali. And that covers “ever.”

In other words, none of them will do him justice, including this.

He is almost surely the one athlete who transcends the history-means-nothing divide between his generation and the two that have followed him. Nobody isn’t aware of him, or his impact upon American and even global culture. He was for decades the most recognizable and ultimately admired athlete in the world, so much so that unlike Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson and Jim Brown and Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you almost cannot find a young person who doesn’t nod in appreciation at the mere sound of his name.

In short, they may know all those names, but Ali’s is the one they know viscerally and reflexively.

Ali stood for more than himself in a business that almost demands hyper-narcissism. He didn’t just leave money on the table with his beliefs, he left time at the height of his career on the table as well. Others might well have if they’d been forced to do so, but he’s the one who did it. He spoke loudest in an era in which the idea of athletes speaking out was in its adolescence.

Oh, and he was almost indisputably the greatest boxer of all time when being the greatest boxer meant something more than Floyd Mayweather cashing and flashing his latest check.

He was a towering monolith and an idiosyncrasy, a stalwart and a hyperactive entertainer. He commanded that you watch, and then that you listen. And the nation did, reluctantly at first and eventually with more open minds and hearts. He was a man before, of, and ultimately after his time.

One might make the case that he could not thrive as well in this more cynical, self-obsessed and technologically intrusive time, because what he had to say would more easily be drowned out by hot takes and media covering media and “blackboard material” given full electronic throat. After all, our media fixations devour all their young indiscriminately and without regard to value.

But to assume that Ali could not handle these times as he handled his own is to shortchange his gift for adapting himself to his surroundings, and then standing apart from them. Ali’s extraordinary boxing skills (spend a few days seeking out the highlights – you’ll thank yourself later) were the stairs he climbed to reach the height of his significance because our culture gives more weight to the thoughts of the famous, especially the athletically famous. But once on stage, his communicative skills drew the main spot and the audience’s eyes and ears to him, and his intellect held it there. He was the perfect amalgam for the emerging television age, and the most recognizable spokesman for his time’s most objectionable notions – racial equality, social and economic justice, and freedom of thought and action.

These are social wars we still fight today, and sadly will probably be fighting again in 40 more years – ground seemingly claimed for good will always be disputed by the disputatious. Ali is in many ways as needed now as he was in 1960s and 1970s.

But he also provided the hope that maybe some things can transcend tribalism and the defense of privilege and the malicious distrust of the powerless by the powerful. When he climbed the stairs to light the Olympic torch to begin the 1996 Atlanta games, he had reached the point where he was that most misused of appellations – he was an icon representing our best selves.

We have no such icon now, at a time when we need one as much as we did back at Ali’s cultural height. Even in his physically enforced silence, his mere presence stood for something more than the sum of all our parts.

And maybe we won’t get another; the luck of the draw is a cruel thing. But we – the four generations who spanned his life – had Muhammad Ali, the life he led and the lives he reached. Consider him a gift we must work harder than we are at present to have earned.

Ray Ratto is the Senior Insider for csnbayarea.com