Impossible is Nothing
Imagine the boy.
He is twelve years old. Like many victims of poverty and racism, he has learned early on that there is very little space for him in the great white world. He knows that those who get out are able to get out because they can either make the white man laugh or beat him in a game. He is already a charismatic child, a natural entertainer, but he has chosen the latter path, and his game is the cruelest of them all: he wants to step into a boxing ring and beat his opponents into surrender or unconsciousness. Imagine the boy, out behind a run-down building in Louisville, urging his brother to hurl rocks at his face, risking having his lip split, his teeth smashed out, his head cracked open. He does this to develop the blinding speed he will one day be known for; he does this to learn the way to duck out of the arc of punishing blows, and soon it will seem as if he is simply there when the punch is thrown and gone when it reaches its moment of vertex.
Now imagine him only six years later. He is barely a man at all, in many ways still a boy, but he is representing his country at the Olympic Games in Rome, five thousand miles away from where he was born and raised. As an amateur he has already fought a hundred fights and won 95% of them; now he faces Belgians, Russians, Australians, and Poles, the best the white world can throw at him, and he crushes them all. He returns home with a gold medal that certifies him as the greatest amateur fighter in the world; he is more determined than ever to become the best fighter, period. He still bears his father’s name, and his father is named for a slave owner who tried later to mend his ways; he will soon decide that this is unworthy of him. His name will be his name, and not someone else’s, not anyone who took part in the power structure that conspired to lay his people low. He knows he does not live in an equal society; he remembers being denied the simplest drink of water as a child, remembers the words ‘boy’ and ‘nigger’ tossed at him and everyone he loves, remembers having his bike stolen and told by the police that if he had a problem he’d best solve it with his own fists.
Imagine him four years later, just barely 22 years old, towering over the vanquished and humiliated Sonny Liston, bellowing at him to get up, his feet barely touching the ground, seeming to be lifted heavenward by his own unconquerable skill and self-confidence. He will never be a boy again; he is not even a man: he is a legend, an icon, an immortal. Everything will change for him now. Having been handed his crown, he shows what kind of king he will be: he spills out hyperbole about his own talents as if they are simple and incontrovertible facts. He spiels forth braggadocio that seems decades ahead of its time. He announces what has been rumored for months: that is now not only a follower of the little-understood faith of Islam, but a Black Muslim, a native expression that combines Islamic thought with an aggressive strain of racial liberation and an unflagging critique of the sins of the white man against the black. He will no longer call himself by the name of a slave-owner; he is now and forever Muhammad Ali, the sublime, the praiseworthy.
Imagine the most vaunted athletes of today — of any color or nation, but most especially ones like him, ones who fought their way out of poverty and the daily humiliations of racism through pure tenacity and ability. Imagine any of them — imagine one of them — doing what Ali did only two years after that: at the very zenith of his greatness, at a time when everything he has fought and bled for, everything he has been denied, all of the money and the fame and the accolades and the respect, he gives them up because he thinks it is wrong to fight in a racist, imperialist war when he can’t exercise his most basic rights at home. He doesn’t think it’s unpopular to avoid the draft; he doesn’t think it’s advantageous to fight in Vietnam; he doesn’t think it will raise his profile to defy the power of the federal government. He does all of these things because he thinks it is the right thing to do. He knows that it will devastate his career. He knows it will cost him precious time, millions of dollars, and perhaps even his freedom. But he does it anyway. He becomes the worst nightmare of the people who made him famous: outspoken, radically pro-black, defiant of the white social order, and so powerful and fearsome that he cannot reasonably be called a coward.
I was too young to really appreciate Ali’s phenomenal ring prowess. By the time I was old enough to become truly cognizant of the man, he was fading from fearsome warrior and political firebrand to talk-show personality. Soon enough he would develop symptoms of Parkinsonism, very likely the result of the years of abuse he’d taken in the ring, and to an entire generation, he would not be the giant who had stridden the world, but a broken-down old man with shaking hands and a creaking voice. It would become easy to forget what a miracle he had been, what an inspiration he had become to so many, what a transformative human being he had seemed. But when I got older, when I started to learn about boxing from my family and my friends and the men who trained me at the Y, Ali’s was the name they returned to again and again, not just as a phenomenon of the sport whose greatness would never be rivaled, but as a man, as a human being who was so much greater than what made him known. When I watched him on chat shows telling the hosts that he had no intention on congratulating the handful of white people who supported him and ignore the millions who wanted him dead; when I heard him draw a stark red line between the Vietcong he was told were his enemy and the American power structure he thought was his true enemy; when I saw him shrug and say “Take me to jail” rather than submit to a racist war of economic colonialism, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I could scarcely credit that someone had fought so hard to become the best would give it up so quickly just because he had an unshakable sense of right and wrong.
Ali is gone now. A man who, even stricken with a disease that causes the body to weaken and fade, seemed so strong and present, has been taken away from us forever. Because we live in the world we live in, people will point out that he was far from perfect, and it’s true: he was too in love with fame. He liked money. He fell for the lines of hucksters and frauds. He kept going past his peak. He was sometimes cruel to those who failed to live up to his standards of righteousness. But all these pale in comparison to the fact that he was someone who not only made himself into a master of his chosen sport, but a man whose voice could be used to speak for millions who didn’t have the same talent and opportunity. George Foreman, who knew Ali in that profound way that only the greatest foes can know each other, said it best: “Don’t call him the greatest boxer of all time. Save that for some boxer.” Ali was more than that; he was greater than great. He did the impossible.