The World has lost The Champ. Muhammad Ali has died at age 74. Boxing legend. Humanitarian. Cultural icon. How do you properly categorize a man that transcended labels? How do you quantify his impact when it was so wide and so varied that he was possibly the most famous person on the planet? You can’t. All you can do is remember him for what he did for his hometown and for the world.
Muhammad Ali was unapologetically black at a time when black people needed someone to look up to. And he was hated for it. He spoke out against racism. And he was despised for it. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, sacrificing 3 years of his prime boxing career when he fought against being drafted. And he was demonized for it. Muhammad Ali stood up for his beliefs, his principles and his faith. How many of us would do that?
In a time where so many people are famous for simply being famous and athletes stand silently while the world changes around them, it’s increasingly harder to fathom how an athlete at the top of his sport could be so brash and cocky in the ring and so in tune with the world outside it. When little boys grew up wanting to be like Muhammad Ali, it wasn’t just for his skill as a boxer, but for the way he championed his community and stood up for the little guy.
Muhammad Ali wasn’t perfect, none of us are. He said some things that I and a lot of people disagree with (his views on interracial marriage are very problematic). In death, we shouldn’t simply whitewash those parts of Ali’s life, but we should examine them in the totality of what he stood for, what he believed and what he did to make the world a better place. When so many people talk the talk about changing the world, Ali talked it and did make the world better.
The world mourns The Greatest. But before Muhammad Ali touched the world, he was The Louisville Lip. Ali’s quotes have been recounted by successful and famous people for 40 years, but the one that resounds the most with me is “I’m the greatest fighter of all-time and Louisville, Kentucky is the greatest city of all-time.” Despite all the he had accomplished and everywhere that he had traveled, Muhammad Ali always loved his hometown and we Louisvillians loved him back.
Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer spoke at a special ceremony on the steps of city hall on Saturday morning: “Muhammad Ali belongs to the world, but he only has one hometown.”
Rest in peace, Champ. Thank you for showing the world what a black boy born in segregated Louisville can do. You are and will always be The Greatest.