The year 2016 was a difficult one that many were glad to see come to an end. The entertainment and sports world lost many of their most iconic figures and brightest stars, but none that shined brighter and reached higher than the former three-time Heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali.
It is been half a year now since the death of Ali. I am still coming to grips with the fact that my childhood hero is gone. To say that he was merely the greatest Heavyweight champion in history or even the athlete of the 20th century minimizes his significance and impact to a generation.
His influence was not limited to the ring–Ali was a social activist, a humanitarian and later a global advocate for peace and the most visible symbol of perseverance against a debilitating illness in Parkinson’s.
Ali made an indelible mark during my childhood. No athlete created more memorable stories, excitement and drama. When Muhammad Ali first came into my consciousness, he was already the most famous person in the world, a global personality.
The first Ali fight I could recall in some detail was a title-losing effort to the unheralded Leon Spinks on February 15, 1978. He looked tired, beat up and his voice had softened measurably. But I still saw that there was an aura about him.
He was tremendously charismatic and more playful and gracious than the young brash boxer that had taken the world by storm a decade earlier. Still the master showman, even though the skills had diminished, the tone was lighter, the bold proclamations had turn mostly to banter.
In his youth, of course, Ali initially entertained us with his gift for gab, quick witted lines, blazing fists, slashing style and the Ali shuffle. Soon, however, we discovered a deeper conviction, inner strength and resolve. And he allowed us all into his extraordinary life.
Whether you agreed with his views or not, you eventually grew to respect him. Ali had immense courage. Although I did not share in many of his beliefs and felt he was deeply flawed, I respected his willingness to sacrifice everything he had for what he believed in. His impact, particularly when it comes to sports and entertainment, is immeasurable.
His bold claims and strong convictions inspired many and called some to action. Confident, courageous, bold and graceful. I grew in confidence, liked to entertain and spoke more boldly of my own convictions largely because of him. Ali was the epitome of a hero.
I had the honor of meeting my hero on two occasions. First in 1988 and then eight years later in 1994. The first time was far more memorable.
He was completely ravaged by the symptoms of Parkinson’s by the 90’s. I had him pose next to a Mike Tyson poster in 1988, which he promptly started punching at after I took the photo.
He autographed one of his picture books, still one of my prized possessions. His eyes turned big as he flipped through some of the pages. He stopped at the photo of him knocking out George Foreman to reclaim the Heavyweight crown 10 years after he had first won it.
He took a long pause and tapped me on the arm and pointed to the picture. Ali had gained almost universal respect and affection–and Muhammad Ali also loved being Muhammad Ali. I waited three hours in line to see him. It was a glorious moment to meet my hero and the most famous person in the world. He could not have been more fun and gracious, every bit the hero I had imagined him to be.
It is quite the irony that arguably the biggest and unquestionably the most important entertainer we lost in 2016 had largely been incognito in the public eye for decades and his voice long silenced as well. But he forever left us a lifetime of memories and to quote the actor James Earl Jones who helped narrate an ESPN documentary on Muhammad Ali, “he already said it.”