I am caught between obligation and dread. Muhammad Ali is dead, and I feel like I’m supposed to write something profound about his passing, but I don’t want to. I can’t, actually. I’m neither a boxing expert nor a social justice warrior or historian. People much better versed in the importance of Ali can sum this up much better than I can.
It’s a problem of too many voices, too much noise: the curse of the internet. If Ali died in his prime great essays would’ve been forthcoming from Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, and Hunter Thompson. Walter Cronkite would’ve eulogized The Greatest on the nightly news. Our collective grief would have been channeled through a few shared outlets. That’s still somewhat true, but our current outlets lack profundity. Social media allows us all to be Mailer and Cronkite, weighing in on current events in our own artless manner. Whether that’s good or bad is beyond me — it just is.
Ali was the last of the “collective experience” champions, the last one whom both boxing fans and the general population tuned in to watch. His career wrapped up just as the sport was moving from broadcast television to premium cable and pay per view. The audience is now limited to those who are willing to pay, but just as we all used to get our news from Cronkite, everyone tuned in when Ali was fighting.
Part of that was that we only had three television stations to choose from so we watched whatever was on, but it was more than that. For kids growing up during the ’70s, Ali was part of a trinity of cool that claimed as its other sides Evel Knievel and Fonzie. All were must-see TV, and all were mandatory playground conversation. To not know the amazing thing that they did the night before was to mark oneself a pariah in the twirly slide line.
All three carried themselves with supreme confidence, something that few of us possessed as grade schoolers. Perhaps even fewer of us demonstrate that sort of self-confidence as adults. Their media was neither motorcycles nor boxing gloves but fear. Knievel climbed into that Snake River rocket cycle sure that he was going to die. Ali had to know that Foreman was going to beat his brains out. In at least one very special episode, the Fonz faced up to his fear of admitting that he was wr- wr- wrong. They were catnip for scaredy cat kids trying to navigate the world.
That was the magic of Ali in particular–his ability to navigate the grown-up world without fear. I don’t remember ever watching a fight that I wasn’t sure he’d win; after all, he was The Champ, The Greatest. On the other hand, some of the adults in my life tuned in just to watch him go down. “Cassius Clay–because that’s his name, no matter what he says–is a big mouth. He’s always stirring up the niggers. That ain’t no champion, that’s a troublemaker. I hope Norton murders him. Kenny seems like a good boy, keeps his mouth shut, knows he’s a goddamned boxer and not Martin Luther King. You side with the Viet Cong, that’s treason. They should’ve shot that draft dodging traitor.”
I’d keep my mouth shut and watch the fight. Ali didn’t need help from an eight year-old anyway. He’d climb into the ring no matter what the adults in my life thought, and win or lose he always emerged The Champ.
I wonder sometimes how much the ’70s trinity shaped my worldview, Ali in particular. I’ve never seen the point of flying halfway around the world to shoot at people who haven’t done anything to me, for example. Is that just common sense, or did Ali plant that seed?
Inevitably they all let me down. Evel Knievel turned out to be a violent drunk. Fonzie gained weight, grew a beard, and became a shop teacher. Ali? He turned out not to be immortal, the bastard.
Nobody gives a damn about boxing anymore aside from the sport’s true fans. It’s no longer a metaphor, and our collective experiences now revolve around viral videos — kittens, Chewbacca Mom, whatever. Those who lay claim to the title of “greatest”–Kanye, for example–not only can’t back it up but don’t stand for anything. It’s a different time–not worse necessarily, just different.
I worry for us as an on-demand culture lacking both true collective experiences and meaningful interpretations of the few that do come along. Currently the closest thing we have to a collective experience is the Trump/Sanders phenomenon, but the analysis of that takes place in the echo chambers of cable news and social media, where we filter out the viewpoints with which we disagree. What commentary we get is biased and shallow, the equivalent of “I hope that troublemaker gets what he deserves.”
That’s why I feel both obligation and dread at the notion of writing about Ali. I’m just another idiot adding to the online noise, contributing no new perspective on the great man and his legacies, both personal and professional, but I’m supposed to write something about him.
Well, I can’t. I’m just sorry that he’s gone, and with him the days of everyone tuning into the same thing at the same time. Regardless of whom we rooted for, we all tuned in when Ali fought, and for 15 rounds we were unified in our interest. The only events that pull us together anymore are disasters, and even those are losing their power to unify us, even for a few moments. We’re splintering apart, falling into the rabbit holes of our individual screens.
The Greatest truly was great. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said.