By Howard Robertson and Larry Robinson, Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Prior to Cassius Marcellus Clay’s proclamation of greatness in the sixties, we don’t know of any other black man or specifically any black athlete who had the audacity to make such a bold and bodacious claim, publically. Legendary fighter Jack Johnson, who was never short on skill, confidence or conversation, was deemed “the most famous and the most notorious African American on earth.” But let’s not confuse those descriptions with being “the greatest.”
Prophetically, historically and unequivocally Muhammad Ali is The Greatest. He was the original. But now out of deference and respect we should put the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) designation away in that special place in our hearts and minds where our other most treasured trophies and memories are kept.
There can be many “Greats” but only one Greatest. However, the multimedia, multiplatform, 24-hour news environment has made us totally loose and lax in our conversations and considerations of who is the Greatest. Based on the latest news and who has the highest personality popularity on any given day, GOAT discussions and opinions are easily triggered a few times a week. They are usually endless, emotional, emphatic exhortations and debates in subjectivity without real agreement or conclusion. Nevertheless, this type of lively repartee is usually “the greatest” for ratings, shares and comments.
Muhammad Ali never specified in which job he was the greatest. Boxer and Athlete? Activist and Advocate? World Citizen and Inspirational Leader? Truth is, arguably, it is all of the above. Greatness is hardly a matter of statistics and analytics. The things that made Ali the greatest boxer and athlete totally transcend his record and stats.
Question: What heavyweight before Ali ever, in history, floated and stung like him? Answer: Nodamnbody.
He was the epitome of sticking and moving, with lightning quick hands and fast footwork previously unseen in the heavyweight ranks. With the exception of possibly Floyd Patterson, all other heavyweights plodded and punched. To be the Greatest he didn’t have to be undefeated but to be unprecedented, to be an innovator and to be a game changer.
The Greatest wasn’t scared. He was neither scared in the fight game nor in the game of life. When one decides to stand and fight against “principalities, against powers…against spiritual wickedness in high places,” one must understand the vulnerability for attack of those things that mean the most to you: your life, your freedom, your family, your livelihood. Muhammad Ali had the courage of his convictions to risk everything dear to him. Juxtapose his position to athletes today that are deathly afraid to stand up for anything, for fear of being fired, fined, suspended or losing income. At the peak of his career, Ali was stripped of his titles, ostracized, accused, wrongfully convicted, nearly jailed and banned from pursuing his livelihood for over three years.
Oh yeah, he was viciously hated too. If not for the protection of the Fruit of Islam he might have been killed. But The Greatest is the greatest because he came through the fire, through the limits and through the walls to regain his heavyweight championship.
In a time before global media outlets, broadcast satellites and computers Muhammad Ali was one of the most popular, most highly revered people on the planet. He was one of the top four which usually also included: the Pope, The Beatles and Elvis. How did people living in huts in villages with no electricity all over the world even hear about this loud talking, rapid rhyming, alleged draft-dodging brother from Louisville, Ky.? Clearly, he was The Greatest because people recognized and gravitated to that greatness wherever he was.
The biggest fight of Muhammad Ali’s career lasted 32 years. The opponent was Parkinson’s disease and he fought a hard, long and inspired fight. How ironic and insidious is it that the big voice of the articulate and eloquent “Louisville Lip” was reduced to shaky, short whispers? But the Greatest simply ratcheted up his other communicative tools…his smile, his movements, his sense of humor and his touch. He showed the affection and affinity he had for people when he couldn’t speak it.
So, here’s the deal. Give the great ones their props and their due, with all due respect. Great ones populate their own broad categories. But have enough respect to give them another title because the original Greatest Of All Time is gone and the mold is broken.
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