It is rare, in this day and age, to be subjected to the never-ending cascade of reflexive praise and contextually vacant salutations offered to a recently deceased cultural figure on the internet, and not feel like it's overkill; almost always, such things are inevitably shallow, cliché, and annoying (if not the work of just flat out bandwagoning phonies). However, every once in awhile, a certain person comes along — or, rather, goes along — that absolutely warrants such treatment, such gushing. They genuinely earned the hyperbolic lionization of their life and exploits.
Muhammad Ali is assuredly one of these people. (Honestly, he may actually now be the poster child for this type of deal.) But not even sunshine and rainbows are always "all sunshine and rainbows;" there is a downside to everything. And no, this does not mean I'm about to rattle off the man's list of faults like some kind of "Look at me!" contrarian jack ass. What I mean is that achieving his brand of inarguable greatness — that truly rarified, stratospheric level of it — requires a heavy cost. And this steep price is one which most people will just glance over, especially during media-saturating, rose-colored, retrospective times like this.
Bottom Line: I believe what Ali actually accomplished — what he truly did to become "The Greatest of All Time" — needs a bit more light on it, to both honor the man further in a richer, fuller context, and use his life and struggle to really examine our own. Ali made millions of people want to be "The Greatest" too, without quite understanding what that would ask of them.
And I think this second part is something we all need to go at least a few rounds with.
When Style Met Substance
Here's where we have to start: Ali was an absolutely sensational boxer. It feels kinda weird to have to point this out but, honestly, it sorta seems like this part of his legacy is the most undersold now. Which is freaking ridiculous considering that, without this, he wouldn't really have much of a cultural impact to speak of.
Make no mistake, though his extremely public conversion to Islam and supremely righteous, principled stance against fighting in the Vietnam War have become the actions we most associate with his imprint on all our lives, the only reason anybody ever actually cared about these decisions is because he was the "Heavyweight Champion of The World" when he made them (at a time when that title mattered, in a way we simply cannot even grasp today). Without this distinction, no one would've ever bothered themselves with his socially conscious conviction.
Ali was also the one and only king of what I call purposeful iconoclasm. It's hard to really understand this now, in the age after Hip Hop culture fully fused with Pop culture, but the loud, braggadocios black man operating proudly in the white world (thereby making it both acceptable and easier for his fellow black people to finally do so as well), without any effort to make the country at large comfortable with who he was or what he represented, was earth-shattering in the 1960s. Ali was a culturally astute, highly intelligent man who understood what the title meant for him... and what he meant for the title. And he bonded these two social caches into one unbelievably captivating package.
This is what made Ali the icon that he was in the 1960s: That combination of otherworldly talent, meaningful rebelliousness, intoxicating charisma, undeniable intelligence, and the title. Take any one of these away, and Ali is not Ali. And by stripping him of that title, and not allowing him to box for three years, the powers that be in boxing ended up taking away almost all of the titanic cultural sway he'd achieved; his work in the ring (and the championship specifically) was the tentpole holding everything else up. In other words, they didn't just take his belt, they took his very identity, which he had earned through his blood, sweat, and tears. Literally.
And he knew he had to get it back. He needed that title to be Ali again, to return everything that he had stolen from him, to go from The Greatest to "The GOAT." And he would do whatever he had to in order to make that happen.
Repeat: whatever he had to.
The Slow Road Back
I need you to see something now:
This was Ali, at the absolute peak of his powers, back in November of 1966 when he was only twenty-four, mere months before his refusal to be drafted into the Army for the Vietnam War.
Now watch this:
That was Ali a mere four and a half years later, in his first of three legendary bouts with Joe Frazier. He's only twenty-nine.
Do you see the difference? The difference in how he moved? The undeniable diminishment of his hand speed, head-bobbing, and overall athleticism? There's none of the unorthodox angles, no shuffle, no breathtaking flurries. He has gone from being a physical freak of nature to a very talented heavyweight. That's what the loss of those three years did to him.
But what did he still have? Along with what remained of his talent, he still had the boisterous swagger that would galvanize the public into watching his fights; he was still supremely relevant. He also had that compulsive need to be champion again, the single-minded drive to regain all he had taken away from him. And most importantly, he still had his intelligence — i.e. his incredible understanding of the fight game, along with everything that swirled around it. And with this combination of still considerable attributes, he set about his goal with a brand new strategy:
Take a ridiculous amount of punishment, and trust your ability to elude that knockout punch, so the fight will keep going past your opponent's ability to hang, and you can wear him down... while all the while continuing to absorb those blows that never could've connected on you only a few short years ago.
Again, go back to that first fight I showed you and count how many times Williams even touches him, let alone lands flush. Was it ten? Maybe a baker's dozen? Now watch the second video, especially that left hook at the 6:06 mark. This is the kind of beating Ali chose to repeatedly subject his body to, in order to achieve his goal.
A strategy that would come to a head on the night of October 30th, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire.
Our 20/20 Blindsight
"The Rumble in the Jungle" is probably the most famous, and supremely misunderstood, fight of Ali's entire career. The legend tells it that Ali victoriously outsmarted Foreman by letting his bigger, stronger opponent punch himself out to the point of fatigue, so then the rested Ali could spring his trap by unleashing his methodically worked out plan.
Ali was getting his ass kicked, plain and simple. And the only countermeasure he could come up with in that moment was to lead that ass-kicking on further, in the desperate hope it would tire his opponent out. Let me say that again: Ali encouraged his own ass-kicking, at the hands of one of the hardest hitters in heavyweight history, because it was the one and only way he could see retaking what he had lost. This may have been a deliberate decision, but there was no calculated plan.
And of course, it worked, which is pretty much the only part of it any of us ever remember. It's probably why we came to love and revere Ali as much as we do, when it was all said and done: he gave us a beautiful, entrancing comeback story, straight out of the glorious tradition of "Boy meets girl... boy loses girl... boy gets girl." (Except here it's "Fighter wins title... Fighter has title taken away... Fighter gets title back.) He achieved his goal; his perseverance was rewarded; he won. This put everything in place, cemented his immortal status as a prizefighter, vindicated his social stances, and solidified all the many layers of his legend into one. That's the end of the tale, as far as we're concerned.
We've completely forgotten the part where he was beaten up for seven rounds by the most powerful boxer of his day, as if the Rope-a-Dope magically made that go away.
The Price of Greatness
And so would follow a series of beatings (most notably in his second victory against Frazier in Manilla), a barrage of punishment that would last Ali until October of 1980, when the world was finally forced to behold what Ali's quest to regain all he had lost — and then keep it for as long as humanly possible — did to him, at the hands of Larry Holmes. (No video of this; it's too depressing.) This too we have successfully eliminated from our memories of Ali's entire life; this too gets sacrificed, so that our collective impression of this great man stays pristine, especially now that he's gone.
But it happened. It all happened.
Muhammad Ali sacrificed his body and mind for his legacy. His all-consuming quest to re-become The Greatest, and thus transform himself into The Greatest of All Time, really did end up consuming so much of his life. Ignoring this, I truly believe, does him a disservice; it undermines the power of his drive, heart, and mind.
It also lies to us about what being great requires from us. It allows us to watch our select clips and montages, or read our moving tributes, and then walk away thinking "Wow, he was really something," with no understanding of that something. Ali was great on a level we seem quite content with simply not getting — maybe because we find it too uncomfortable — and I think that comes at the expense of all parties.
Which brings me to the titular "question" of this piece, the one I always wanted to ask him but never could, even if I ever actually got the chance, even before his death. It's a question you do not ask people who've made the kinds of decisions he has, because it asks them to consider the possibility that the life they led was perhaps not one they should have, after it's far too late to do anything about it. I can't imagine anything more selfish.
But the question always rattled around my brain nonetheless, because I'm certain it holds so much for our understanding of who he fully was — as an entire person — beyond our regard for him and the image we all helped him create. It's a question that I am also positive holds so much of what it takes to be truly great, in a way we simply don't have the tools to discuss all too often.
What I always wanted to ask the man — but never could — was simply this:
"Was it worth it?"
I'm almost certain he would've said yes, of course. But it'd be that immediate moment of organic reaction (and possible hesitation), displayed on his face and in his eyes, which I would've treated as the answer. I'd like to think the face would've been peaceful, the eyes would've been confident, and that "Yes" would've flowed naturally, coupled with a wide grin... instantaneously telling me he meant it with all his heart. It gets to remain a wonderful story that way; I prefer this scenario to the point of assuming it's automatically true.
But sometimes I still wonder about that, which is why I still imagine getting to ask, even though I never would. Even when there was no realistic way I could. And yes, even now, when I know I never can, for the rest of time.