Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.
I first saw Muhammad Ali when I was 11 years old. Far away from the boxing ring, he illuminated our little TV in his tan suit and on the winning end of a sparring match with talk-show host, Michael Parkinson. In living rooms all over 1970s Northern Ireland, families gathered around to watch – if Ali was on the telly, we were allowed to stay up late. Captivated, we had never seen anyone like him. Sparkling. Silver-tongued. Strong. Superhuman. Black. Pretty. Oh so pretty. He lifted us up and away from the troubles that shook our streets. Ali shook up our world.
Like Michael Parkinson, we were besotted – and Ali knew it, saying so out loud:
I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.
Yes. It would. It would be a much better world.
It wasn’t just the charisma and the charm that appealed to us. We knew we were watching a man who could – and would – stand for something, a man with enough power in his fists and in his heart to make a mark beyond the ring, such as that he made with his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War:
Shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me.”
Such battles place in perspective those bouts in the ring with the likes of Smokin’ Joe Frazer. George Foreman, Charles ‘Sonny’ Liston. These, however, were no match for the opponent beyond it – Parkinson’s, the disease doctors say may have been the consequence of thousands of punches taken during Ali’s career. A relentless adversary, it would slur his sparkling speech and slow him down for three decades.
Transfixed by the trembling reality of a silent Ali lighting the Olympic torch in 1996, we realized he was a mere mortal. Just like us. Except, of course, he was the greatest. The greatest. And still recognizable was the mischief in his eyes, the magic that had drawn us to him in the first place. The thing that shook us up.
After defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, Muhammad Ali declared, “I shook up the world.” Tonight he did it again, dying quietly in a Phoenix hospital.
Ali, you shook up the world. Rest easy now.
Muhammad Ali Jan. 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016