On January 17, former heavyweight champion and activist Muhammad Ali turned 73-years-old and was released from a Louisville area hospital with what doctors and family members said was a urinary tract infection. Just weeks prior to that stint in the hospital, the GOAT was hospitalized with a particularly nasty pneumonia bug.
Formerly known as Cassius Clay, Ali has been the closest thing to a living, breathing Black superhero that many of us have ever seen in our lives. His Herculean feats of athleticism and selflessness are well documented. Ali has taken bone-crushing blows from some of the strongest men to have ever walked the earth with a smile and a smirk. He has defeated mighty men who were fearsome and hateful in their approach to pugilism, has spoken truth to the authorities without fear of reprisal and has positioned himself as a friend of people of color across the globe.
His selflessness was almost of Biblical proportions as he sacrificed titles and millions in prize fight money by refusing to be conscripted into the Army during the Vietnam War and having to serve time in prison because of it.
Muhammad Ali was a much-sought after speaker at the hallowed Ivy League Univeristies of Dartmouth, Columbia and Princeton during his heyday and only withdrew from public speaking engagements due to the effects of Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with at the age of 42. Despite the loss of his signature speaking voice, his bravado and zest for life was unblemished as his legend status continued to flourish and become evermore impregnable. His international celebrity status is still unprecedented as compared to all former athletes of all colors and gender. Only Michael Jordan is comparable, and even that is of constant debate.
While at a press junket for the I Am Ali documentary in 2013, Muhammad Ali’s oldest daughter Maryum Ali explained to reporters why audio recordings featuring his voice that were used in the film have added significance from a historical and familial point of view due to his advanced age and current condition.
“He’s just documenting what’s going on his life,” said Maryum of the recordings. “He’s got the world’s first reality show. He’s documenting what’s going on in his life behind the scenes. He was a parent. There’s also stuff about him opening the lines of communication between the U.S. and Tehran in the Iran Hostage situation in 1979. All kinds of different stuff. I think he was trying to document his own life and record his own legacy. His legacy as a father to us and capturing special moments of us as children so we have that to cherish later in life because he’s always valued time and the passing of time. He always made us aware of that, even as little kids. He had a natural value for that and he loved the beauty of everyday living. He had a lot of time to spend at home because he was retired when he was married to my mother. He got to be an at home father with us. He loved the feeling and missed our siblings from previous relationships and he wanted to make sure that we knew that they were his and that he was their father too.”
It’s sometimes hard for many to reconcile reality with heroes who we’ve all deemed to be larger than life, but the reality is that Muhammad Ali is aging and time is the toughest opponent of all. For millions of family, friends, loving fans and admirers, each time a news story mentions the health of Ali it is a story of immediate interest and concern. We don’t fear for him, we fear for ourselves. Chilled in the realization that one of the greatest people to have ever lived in America may one day be no more. Until then, we’ll continue our respect, admiration and love for a true international icon.
So as we celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we also take the time to celebrate another great man of African descent.
Happy Belated Birthday Muhammad Ali.