When people pass we generally think of their character, traits, and ideals. Occasionally we get an individual who can’t possibly be explained without anecdotes. Their life, so full of color, can only be embodied by a story, joke, or situation. One of these people is the now late Muhammad Ali. An urban legend that I’ve adopted growing up was the origin of my name. My grandfather, an amateur boxer turned tycoon, was at a gym where Muhammad Ali decided to spar in. Humbled by this American superstar who was spending time in the presence of a Palestinian export to Egypt, my grandfather took a liking to this man’s character. Years later, my parents, who at the time were in the middle of a divorce, argued over what my name would be. My father wanted Kareem, after, Kareem Abdul Jabber, one of the most celebrated NBA players of all time. My mom, bolstered by my grandfather, was happier with Ali. The rest is history.
Yet see Ali transcended anecdotes. He was an anecdote. We remember a poor kid from Kentucky that figured out how to equate his fast mouth with an even faster left hook. We remember his quips and quotes. We remember him standing up for a cause. But we still forget. We forget how loud his voice became when Martin and Malcolm were muted. We forget how much he loved his family. We forget his last hurrah(s) where we all winced and hoped he would retire. But they’re all jumbled memories in our head of one man who stood up at a time when everyone sat down. Ali was not just an icon, he was the glaring scar of our inability to elevate our morality. He reminded us that 100 years after slavery was abolished there was still inequality. Fast forward another 50 years and there is STILL inequality. He was proud of being black. He was proud of being Muslim. When they didn’t know what a Muslim was or what a Muslim did he taught them. He became our Goliath, giving kids like me someone to look up to. Not to idolize, but to put as a marker for what greatness really is. At a time where I know I am different by my color, last name, or creed (yes, in 2016), he is still that marker, no matter how weathered or worn.
Greatness is hard to quantify in any form. Ali made sure we understood he was the barometer on what that meant. He took us through civil rights, geopolitics, religious fervor, and oh yeah boxing. He was an inflated balloon of confidence blown up rightfully by our need for a voice of the decade, nay century. When Ali stood up to government mandates and stated that he would not be drafted, not because he was too pretty or famous, but because he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese, the world slowly shifted their gaze. Who did this wise cracking boxer think he is? Oh yeah, our moral compass of civil liberties. A man who would give up three years of his prime (in boxing that’s like 10 years of competitiveness) because of his belief in a cause. A cause so strong it went to the Supreme Court. All this never culminated in a real apology, but a bullseye on his back. One in which he wore proudly.
But, Ali was no God. He was no Messiah. He erred, fell, hurt, and went through a period where we questioned his judgement. His love for boxing, and in a way entertaining us, cost him the last 30 years of his life. Even then, he still continued to be an advocate, adding the fight to end Parkinson’s disease to his resumé. This was the Ali I knew so my parents stuffed me to the brim with ESPN Classic, Old VHS tapes, and stories that expanded the legend. As a young minority growing up in a rough and tumble Brooklyn, this was especially endearing and impactful. The influence in one man was exceptional. People like Will Smith, Mike Tyson, and even UFC’s Dana White found him an attribute to who they are today. Legends in their own right.
It’s hard to write about the passing of figures that evoke emotions. It’s equally harder to write about someone like Ali. Because there is no one else like Ali. Having his namesake has a weight behind it. To be a leader, a success, a wise ass, and beyond different. I’d be lying if I said there were no tears on this end. Or that it didn’t take an exceptionally long time to write this. It would only be fair to end on another anecdote. One of my friends Joe got married a few years back in his hometown in San Antonio. After the wedding we had an impromptu after party at his father’s house who had a smorgasbord of memorabilia. One of the pieces that stood out was a plaque of Muhammad Ali that had two signatures; Muhammad Ali AND Cassius Clay. I did a double take. Ali was exceptionally vocal about his ‘slave’ name, Cassius. This was to a point that he would rarely autograph anything with that name after he converted to Islam. When Joe’s father, an immense Ali fan and Fire Marshall, approached him, Ali initially balked before signing both for him. That’s why they called him the People’s Champ. And that’s why we grieve.