By Mike Hastings
Muhammad Ali was truly bigger than life.
He was a great boxer. Never before or since has a heavyweight combined the speed, power and endurance of Ali. But calling him a great boxer does not define him.
He was a civil rights leader. He was respected by the non-violent Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, who wanted equality by any means necessary. Yet to call Ali a civil rights leader does not define him.
After knocking out Sonny Liston and capturing the heavyweight championship of the world, Ali reached the pinnacle of his profession. Soon after he changed his “slave name” of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and risked his title, his earning potential and his freedom, when he refused to fight a war he said went against his religion. But to call him a defender of religious freedom does not define him.
After the Supreme Court overturned his draft evasion conviction more than three years later, Ali returned to the ring.
Waiting for him was Smokin’ Joe Frazier. The two put on three of the greatest boxing matches of all time. Frazier won the first, but Ali would later win the next two, including the climatic “Thrilla in Manila” epic battle that Ali said felt like death.
Both men fought like warriors before Frazier, his eyes swollen shut, was forced give up. Yet calling Ali a fearless fighter does not define him.
At this time, I was the editor of my high school newspaper. Every year, the New York Times and St. Bonaventure University would hold a competition for high school journalists. I had written an article for my paper about Ali’s battles with Frazier and my teacher thought it was good enough to enter in the Times sports feature competition. Amazingly enough, I won.
Years later, I met Ali when I was traveling with my wife. We were at the Atlanta Airport and noticed a large crowd and loud laughter. Ali was sitting there talking with everyone, holding a child on his lap, biting his lip and pretending to spar with the child, until the youngster landed a right cross and he slumped over.
When he noticed my wife, he called her over and she sat on his lap. He looked at me and said “is that your husband? You can do better.” When I put up my fists, he jumped up and we (thank God) pretended to go at it.
After, he chatted with us and I told him about my high school award. He said there’s no doubt I should have won, given the subject matter.
I will never forget that day, and yet I have realized that Ali has made memories like that for people around the world all his life. Yet to call him a man of the people does not define him.
So most people stopped trying to and simply accepted the definition Ali used to describe himself - the Greatest!
He truly was, and the world is less great without him. We miss you champ. Rest well.
Goodbye to the Greatest