He had become enamored with Tom Izzo and his subsequently growing program and was residing at the time in the southwest corner of Michigan. (“His folks called and said, ‘Can we get a couple tickets for Muhammad Ali?’ ” Izzo said at the time.
It actually was the Champ and now he was out in the postgame hallway of the Breslin Center, waiting to congratulate the Spartans after a victory over a good Connecticut team.
Ali, dubbed the Louisville Lip for practically inventing modern sports trash talk and maybe even the notion of rap music, did not speak. He did not float like a butterfly anymore. Parkinson’s had ravaged him. He shuffled. He looked people in the eye. He feigned a boxing position. That was it.
Word that Ali was in the hall brought a crowd, including Michigan State players out of the locker room that was celebratory. They’d met him before that season, but this never got old. They simply wanted to see him, greet him, thank him, experience him. And shortly news now here came the Huskies, and reached the UConn locker room also.
The Best passed away Friday at the age of 74 in a Phoenix area hospital. He wasn’t just the only three-time linear heavyweight champ ever and the finest boxers of all-time.
He was, if you will, a guy whose impact stretched after he ceased speaking and will long, long after his departure, one of the first and still few international stars and the most influential athlete ever.
There is no simple method to list all his accomplishments. You can pile his career with anyone as a boxer – 56-5, with epic successes over Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Forman and others.
You can do the same as a sheer entertainer, building and then flourishing in a limelight of promotion that turned things like the “Rumble in the Jungle” into global occasions.
That’s but a pittance of it. Ali the Man was like no other. He then said it and saw the world clearly. He was the greatest communicator; an ability that belied what he often joked was a deficiency of a natural intellect coupled with a substandard education. Possibly, but when it came to street smarts, he was but a genius.
He broke the mold when it came to trash talk. He would colorfully and brashly predict victories – “I Will beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on,” he said before a 1965 fight against Floyd Patterson.
It was all good fun for Ali fans, and enraging behavior from the old-school Puritanical, establishment that had seen nothing else like him.
The smack talk was. There have been a million replicas of that, on the playgrounds, through popular music, even in the ring. Ali was not shallow. He was real, legitimate, wise, incredible.
As he became a Muslim, a notion that few Americans could understand his birth name of Cassius Clay was changed to Muhammad Ali. The truth is, many in the media kept referring to him as Clay.
“Cassius Clay is a slave name,” Ali said. “I didn’t choose it, and I did not need it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist folks using it when talking to me and of me.”
This was principle he said, mentioning conscientious objector status. He then tore apart the whole fallacy of that war, and the state of racial issues in America, with two succinct sentences that the finest political speechwriter could just dream to have thought up.
His refusal to fight for USA got him arrested (it was eventually cleared after long legal battles that went all the way to the Supreme Court) and cost him three years of his prime as a fighter. It also meant he returned as the greatest anti hero, love in some sections of the state, despised by others that were jeopardized by the presence of a black man who refused to back down, yet was actually everything America is supposed to be.
“I am America,” Ali said. “I am the part you won’t comprehend, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My own, my goals. Get used to me.”
After, after the assaults of September 11, 2001, perpetrated by Muslims, Ali mustered voice and all the energy he still had to attempt to describe to an enraged America that day that his faith, his beliefs, weren’t signified. With waning strength, he was fighting for tolerance and idea and understanding. In fact, he surmised, Parkinson’s may have help sharpen the message – Ali finding a positive in anything.
“Maybe my Parkinson’s is God’s way of reminding me what is significant,” he said. “It slowed me down and induced me to listen rather than chat. Really, people pay more attention to me now because I don’t talk as much.”
There is nothing like him these days. There’s nothing like him any days. That’s what hauled all those college kids out of their locker room in 2000, that is what drew in the largest sports heroes, celebrities, politicians and lovers until his final breath on world.
So these days is protected, scripted, about making a buck, not changing the world. That isn’t all of it though. To ask any current athlete, any current anyone, to be Muhammad Ali, to possess that courage, that conviction, that sheer talent is unfair.
Only one can be the Largest … long live the Champ.