Monday, June 6, 2016

The Greatest

Our society has a tendency to exaggerate.

Everything is the best. Or the worst. There is no in-between.

Most often the case is overstated.

Not this weekend.

Not when talking about Muhammad Ali.

He loudly and proudly declared himself 'The Greatest.'

In the news business, we deal with hype and hyperbole every day. Not when it comes to Ali.

The man was good to his word. He spoke the truth. He was the greatest.

And not just the greatest athlete, although his exploits, winning the heavyweight title three different times, including after being forced to sit out three years at the peak of his career because of his refusal to accept military service after being drafted.

I never quite agreed with the champ for that decision. Of course, I also feel extremely lucky that it's one I did not have to make. But he stood his ground, refused to back down, and paid a huge price for that decision.

I know there are many people who smiled at the thought that the 'Louisville Lip' was finally being shut up. He had his title taken away in a courtroom when no one could do it in a ring.

But he never bowed, never broke his resolve.

And he came back to win back his crown - not once but on two separate occasions.

I met Muhammad Ali once in my life. It happened, of all places, at a Phillies game.

My brother and I were at a Phillies game when we saw a commotion a few sections over behind home plate. Ali was at the game. This was, I think, during the time when he had been stripped of his title. He still attracted fans like moths to the light. I couldn't resist approaching him, and of course, being the proud Philly sports guy, I told him to watch out for Frazier. I've regretted it ever since.

When he stood up I was not prepared for just how big a man he was.

Yes, his physical presence was overwhelming.

Much like the way he dominated not just sports but society in general.

It was no boast. At one time his was very likely the most recognizable visage in the world.

And remember, this was long before the world of social media made celebrity available at the click of a mouse.

There is an irony that Ali, the master showman, promoter, and talker, would fall victim to Parkinson's syndrome.

His silky smooth moves became rigid, shuffling along like so many other, less old fighters.

His voice, used to speak, boast and challenge us all, was reduced to a slurring whisper.

But he was still Muhammad Ali.

I was always singularly impressed by his imposing physical, athletic abilities. For him to do what he did, at his age, after the forced layoff, is almost beyond belief.

But it would be a mistake to relegate Ali to simply the world of sports.

He was a world figure.

He was, simply, The Greatest.

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