There might not be another athlete, living or dead, who commands more respect than Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest”.
That’s why America frowned and shook its collective head when Marlins boss Jeffrey Loria dragged Ali out for a pre-game ceremony on opening night of the MLB season in Miami yesterday. Ali, a shell of his former self, probably did not even know where he was. His hands shook violently while he rode in on a golf cart, the ghost of a fallen champion. Seniors, boomers, twenty-somethings, and teenagers, born well after his fighting days were over, all expressed their sadness and shock at seeing the Champ in such poor shape, ravaged by Parkinson’s disease.
But all of the love and admiration for this man makes me wonder: Would Ali be held in the same high esteem if his athletic heyday was, say, 2012?
Think about this generation’s most beloved, and despised, athletes. The ones we love are selfless, stoic and modest – think Cal Ripken, Jr. The ones we hate are aloof, egotistical, and never afraid to tell us that they’re the best – think Barry Bonds. Where does Ali stand on this spectrum? Anyone can answer that question.
Ali is as famous, if not more famous, for his flamboyant personality and bravado than for his results in the ring. By all accounts he was the cockiest man that ever lived.
His spiteful, arrogant rants and raves will forever live in our minds. Over and over, he proclaimed himself, “the greatest that ever lived.” He ridiculed opponents before every bout, most notably Joe Frazier, who some believe never recovered from Ali’s verbal attacks (among other things, Ali called Frazier an Uncle Tom, a gorilla, and constantly poked fun at his lack of education). The mild-mannered Frazier even ventured to say, “God’s shut him up. He can’t talk no more because he was saying the wrong things,” when Parkinson’s began to control Ali’s body.
Imagine someone at the apex of his sport, like Lebron James, spitting such venom to opponents. He’d be ripped apart by the media and fans alike. Any dignity he once had would be gone in an instant. Yet Ali is beloved for it, while many of today’s athletes have done far less to upset fans.
Ali also famously refused to serve his country in the Vietnam War, famously saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… they never called me nigger.” Granted, Ali did have detractors after this selfish move, but it was celebrated by some, and wholly ignored by others.
On the flip side, the public outcry was deafening when Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas refused to join his team at the White House earlier this year to celebrate their 2011 Stanley Cup win, citing political differences with the current administration.
Overall it seems like Ali got away with a lot of lip and cowardice.
Is this a generational issue? That seems unlikely, as many of today’s fans were in their sports-viewing prime during the Ali era?
Did he get away with it because he was so dominant? Maybe.
Michael Jordan, also the “best ever”, is also viciously egotistical and detached, yet he is almost universally beloved.
Whatever the reason is, there’s a ton of hypocrisy involved, and I don’t like it. What Ali did in the ring should have had no bearing on the way he carried himself among others. Greatness and fame is no excuse for malice and arrogance, though that’s where it most often leads. The fact that he is a Draft Dodger only adds to the infamy.
That said, it was difficult to watch Ali last night. No man deserves a fate like his. But the American public needs to take a step back and see that the man they love and admire possesses many of the traits that they’ve come to loathe.