I can perfectly recall sitting in the living room with my father, watching as Ali danced around the ring. He moved with a rare mix of natural fluidity and severe power, dispatching with one rough, plodding opponent after another. He seemed the perfect embodiment of masculine striving.
But it was not until after the match, that I began leaning into the TV screen. That’s when Ali would unleash one of his verbal rants, full of braggadocio. Full of self confidence, Ali would proclaim to the world, I am the greatest.
In an age of compulsive trash talking athletes, this might not seem such a noteworthy innovation. But in a time when blacks were considered plainly inferior, Ali suggested an alternative. He did not keep his mouth shut. He would not abide by those social customs that had conditioned black Americans to subvert their thoughts. This was rather new, and rather inspiring. Along the way, he gave countless American blacks a model of achievement. Failure suddenly seems less customary. And the possibility of playing the part of a champion seems a little more possible.
That is what great athletes can do: they give us a model of striving for human perfection. They ascend because they transcend. An old girlfriend used to always ask me, why do we need to be so intense about our sports heroes? The answer is simple. It’s because they transcend the physical or cultural laws that enmesh the rest of us. Certainly, this is what Ali accomplished when he perched himself atop the sporting world, then sung the sublime tune of self-worth. He gave us a model of human striving. He taught us to affix value to our lives. He said believe in yourself. Be yourself. For that I am thankful.