Sometimes I feel like death hasn’t impacted me like it has most people. My paternal grandfather died when I was 6 and at 7 my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with something that my grandmother still denies was Alzheimer’s. When he passed, during my sophomore year, the impact wasn’t there because I didn’t know him. I mostly remember him as being a catatonic-frail old man in a recliner that didn’t respond to me when I said hello.
When famous people die I don’t get overly emotional. Losing David Bowie and Prince was heavy, but I wasn’t particularly sad. Muhammad Ali though… I’m struggling. Why am I so affected by the conclusion of this one man’s stretch of time on earth? He wasn’t my friend. I wasn’t his.
The easiest thing to say is that I have some hometown pride and to a degree that isn’t incorrect. It’s more than that, I mean I’m not setting a Google alert to keep me up-to-date on Diane Sawyer or Tom Cruise. He was a Titan. He was more than himself, but never stopped being human. He was a champion . His boxing was easy to marvel at and it was even easier to be infected by his jubilant presence. He was clever and never shied away from an opportunity to share that wit.
He was principled. As people more eloquent than I have noted, he sacrificed some good fighting years to stand up for himself. People like to throw around the phrase “draft dodger” and that phrase should be reserved for people like Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Demonizing Ali for conscientious objection is ignoring the fact that the draft robbed many American families of it’s young men. Even the ones that made it home. It’s a shame more of them didn’t speak up.
He became an icon. How could he not at such a pivotal time in our civil rights history? He was a hero, as he traveled the world and combated the finest warriors of his time. He was my real-life, flesh and blood hero. In my 20s my friends and I would take turns telling potentially apocryphal tales that we had heard. One time he allegedly helped a hitchhiker by giving them every cent he physically had on him. Once I heard that saved a man’s life. He was the Hercules of the 20th century.
As I gravitated towards punk rock the things that stood out to me were issues of social justice and fighting the good fight. I was musically and lyrically motivated by people like Minor Threat’s Ian Mackaye, or Endpoint’s Rob Pennington. The Massachusetts band Bane has a song titled Ali Vs Frazier I in which the swelling crescendo of the song has group vocals chanting give more, give everything, give blood. It’s easy to see how Muhammad Ali the icon fit in easily with my values as the singer of a hardcore/punk band. I wrote this song as a tribute to Ali with send offs to Queen and Popeye the movie, as well as alleged quotes from the man himself. I tried to capture that unquestionable confidence that he was known for. Not many people know this, but Ali released an album himself. It’s mixture of spoken word poetry and some passable singing. The first track was: “I am The Greatest.” Track 2? “I am The Double Greatest.”
I met Muhammad Ali in the August of 2013. He wasn’t the giant I remembered from the pictures and clips of his fights. He was in a wheelchair and he was thin. He had failings. He reminded me of my grandfather. He wasn’t perfect. Even in his prime he lost some matches but I could still see in his eyes that he could have taken down a rhino. He was cordial and it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience. Through his life he instilled in me the knowledge that you can be great and still falter. None of us make it out of this world alive so I don’t count this as a loss. He quit boxing many years ago but he never stopped fighting. And now, he’s a legend. He is The Double Greatest.
Jared Manning assists multiple doctors use LASERS to correct the vision of Louisvillians of all ages. He reads comic books and has received two medals for choking people. OSS.