Hey everybody, 2016, am I right? *ducks flying tomatoes*
Seriously, this has been, in words coined 2 decades ago by our bejewelled Figurehead-of-state, “Annus horribilus”. Which of course is Latin for…
A really crappy year. Yeah, let’s go with that.
Across the board, it has been a year of seemingly incessant crapulence.
From the flaming bag of politics on our southern neighbour’s doorstep, to the rash of terror attacks across the pond, to the ticking time bomb that is urban race relations, 2016 has been a bad TeleNovela of historic proportions.
And it’s not even over yet.
Plus don’t even get me started about Brangelina…
However, the most unusual aspect of this disquieting year has been the unprecedented loss of prominent public figures.
From all corners of our culture, singular artists and personalities have passed on at what seems to be a ridiculous rate. It’s impossible to quantify such theory, but it sure seems like it, no?
And we’re talking transcendent, generational talent too. Giants of music, film, and literature have shuffled off and left us wondering just which of the Gods we’ve angered in this particular calendar year.
Sporting figures too…
My word, the names. Unfathomable.
And since this column purports to be about sporting pursuits, I’ll begin there for part one in this series.
To label Muhammad Ali as merely a great boxer is to label Leonardo Da Vinci as a fine sketch artist, William Shakespeare a whiz at rhyming couplets.
You’re not even scratching the surface.
That a man born of humble beginnings in Kentucky could rise to the heights of success, fame, and influence beyond measure suggests the hand of divine providence, a heretofore unseen combination of talent, will, and courage, or perhaps both.
Ali himself, a man of unshakable faith and supreme confidence, would likely choose both.
He began his ascent as a brash Olympic champion, and followed with a blazing professional career. In a few short years he had taken over the sport, a blur of technique, footwork, strength, and fearlessness. That he did it was a high-decibel cockiness only cemented his singularity. Love him, hate him, but just try to ignore him.
Along the way he challenged the status quo at every turn, risking wealth and opportunity with his embracing of the Nation of Islam, and his epic battle with the US government over his refusal to participate in combat in the Vietnam War.
Ali was steadfast, resolute, and vocal. It was not his war. His war was with his own nation, and the racism he and other faced on the home front. That was Ali’s fight, not “them Viet Cong”. His stance catapulted him from sports star to global citizen, from boxer to fighter, albeit at a huge personal and financial cost. He was stripped of his licence, forced away from the sport that defined him, for nearly a half decade of his fighting prime.
His return from exile saw a different Ali; bigger, slower, more strategic, but no less sure of himself, or his place. He became a more static fighter, like a traditional heavyweight, trading power shots. He would learn to wear down his opponent through the rope-a-dope, absorbing countless blows that would ultimately be his undoing.
Another change came in lockstep with the new satellite TV age; Super Fights. His battles with George Foreman and his nemesis Joe Frazier, felt like duels to the death, and thus became all-time viewing. Closed-circuit fights became the spectacle, and Ali was their hype man. Even in his declining years in the ring, in the early throes of the illness that would claim him, he was event television.
Away from the ring ropes, his celebrity, and platform, grew outward thanks to his televised verbal jousts with his early champion and intellectual sparring partner, Howard Cosell.
In retirement, ironically as Parkinson’s began to silence that loud beautiful boastful bellow, he truly became a spokesman. Not for boxing, or for athletics in general, but for humanity, equality, and compassion. Leaders sought audience with the ever more frail former King of the World. His global legend grew more ascendant as his physical light was dimming, as evidenced when he brought the world to a standstill one more time by lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta. He had come full circle.
You may not have known boxing, were you in Hong Kong, Beirut, or Kinshasa, but you damn sure knew Ali.
As years passed and his condition robbed him all but the most basic of communication and movement, stories emerged of the country gentleman, whose door was open to anyone who braved the walk up his farm house drive. You were welcome. You were family.
Upon his passing came an outpouring of sorrow and tribute unseen in the world of sport in generations.
Former foes, great artists, and even sitting heads of state spoke with reverence of the man who became a symbol of tolerance and dignity; A man who came in screaming and left with quiet grace.
There are numerous, far better tributes to the man than what you find here, but suffice it to say I was one of his millions of fans, not just from watching his fights as a young boy, but also as an admirer of his activism and giant, incomparable heart.
2016 has taken from us its share of visionaries, blazing talents, and trendsetters.
No one had the global cultural impact of Muhammad Ali. Not one of them.
It isn’t even close.
I hope you’ll join me next time around for Part Two.