Jimmy Green had this to say about the life of Muhammad Ali:
He was a man for the times — the turbulent 1960s when our nation was shredded by a war in Asia. And he was a man for the times in the more peaceful 1970s as he aged and so did we.
The greatest of all time?
The greatest heavyweight champion?
Joe Louis would have beaten Ali.
Joe Frazier did once in their classic three-bout series. And Holmes would beat the bloated Ali in Las Vegas.
But there is more to greatness than pure skill in the boxing ring — and more to greatness than impure poetry and the braggart’s artistry with words.
Greatness is connected to impact — and no other athlete in the 20th century had more impact on society.
Not even Jackie Robinson?
Robinson changed Major League Baseball, and thus, sports.
Ali changed American culture.
I believe he made it better.
We could sort of thumb our noses at the government, if we wanted. Ali did with dignified defiance and won in the courts. He could be sassy and funny and make stodgy old goats giggle at themselves. He could make us react and think.
Yes, Ali the athlete, Ali the man too, he was the greatest.
Other than saying Joe Louis would defeat Ali, Green nailed it.
Ali was the featured attraction inside and outside the ring. More than that, Ali transcended sports. He fought for what he believed. He forced America to answer the question, “What exactly are we doing in Vietnam, and why must I, or my child, sacrifice ourselves for a tiny country in Southeast Asia?”
It was Ali’s resistance to follow his government’s disastrous path into Vietnam that Martin Luther King chose to become a war protestor.
Ali was a leader. Ali was a humanitarian. Ali was filled with complexity, and at times, hypocrisy.
Ali was America.
Rest In Peace, Champ.
In recognition of the life and death of Ali, I played Cat Power’s title track of her highly acclaimed 2006 album, The Greatest.