I grew up in the 70s and 80s. As the first generation of Muslim immigrants, my life was a discorporated series of culturally-specific events. One world was that of a Muslim kid going to mosque and learning Arabic, and the other was of an American kid playing baseball in the cul-de-sac that my house was on.
But there was one bridge between these two worlds. The Greatest.
That superlative is used for many things. The greatest book. The greatest movie. The greatest president. But there has only been one man – one – who was ever called The Greatest. And that man was Muhammad Ali. The black, narcissistic, bombastic Muslim convert who befriended Malcolm X, refused to serve in Vietnam, graced the cover of Sports Illustrated more times than any other athlete ever, and regularly fought with commentator Howard Cosell on prime time without a second thought. And while he was doing all of these things, he managed to cover himself with glory and taught an entire generation of boys what it meant to be a man.
He was a legend in my house. He was an icon, revered like the promise of America was revered. He was everything that made America great – courage, strength, compassion, watching out for the little guy, and the self-assured confidence that one could overcome anything, no matter what the odds. The fact that he was a Muslim was icing on the cake, as far as my dad was concerned. In my mind, The Greatest became the unofficial spokesperson for the entire Muslim community in America. In fact, my dad was convinced that if Ali won “Rumble in the Jungle,” his second child (born shortly after that fight) would be a son (he was).
In 1971 he got into the ring with Joe Frazier. 15 rounds. It was a slugfest. Both men took a beating, but Joe Frazier came out on top. And in spite of all of the loud-mouthed and self-absorbed comments that Ali was known for, his comments after the fight were: “Joe beat me fair and square. He’s the champion. But I’ll be back.” A man that loved to win, but also know how to lose, with grace and with pride.
I watched one of his early fights on ESPN classic a few days ago. The 1972 Kenny Norton fight. Ali had his jaw broken in the first round of that fight. He went another eleven rounds with a broken jaw. He lost that fight, but not for lack of trying. He went all the way, giving it 100%. He fought through the pain of his jaw to finish what he started. In fact, he didn’t fight through it. He fought with it. He fought despite it.
But my favorite fight was Rumble in the Jungle. To me, that was Ali’s greatest fight. It wasn’t because Ali beat a guy that looked like the Incredible Hulk, or that he turned George Foreman’s face into a potato. It was because we saw the absolute brilliance that made Ali The Greatest. He went in fast in the beginning rounds, coming out with the technical grace that made him the fighter that he was. When he saw that wasn’t going to work, he changed his tactics mid-stream, forcing Foreman to work harder and longer to land punches. He created the rope-a-dope, further tiring Foreman. Ali completely changed his style and his tactics to find a way out a situation that few people thought he could win. He didn’t think outside the box; rather, he refused to acknowledge that there was a box at all. He shifted, he adapted, and in the end, he won. He showed the world that not only could he take a hit, but he also had the ability to hit a target no one else could see.
Therein lies the greatness of Ali. Many people can hit a target that no one else can hit; that is what talent is all about. But to hit a target no one else can see? That genius is what makes Ali the Greatest.
In many ways, Ali was shaped by the social context in which he grew up. His constant references to truck drivers, cabbies, schools, and his city on national iconize him as a man of the people, just as his conversion to Islam, his name change, and his rejection of the draft set him apart. But for a young kid growing up Muslim in the South, he was a model unlike any other; his strength, charisma, intelligence, and compassion were all a part of what made him what I thought a Muslim should be. He was a my voice in mainstream America. He said and did the things I wanted to say and do, but could not.
And for that, I loved him.