The passing of Muhammad Ali should not be mourned, as the winding narrative of Ali will continue to dance long after the collective epitaph.
2016 has been a notable year for loss. We’ve farewelled David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince. It’s easy to mourn them, because it’s easy to define them. Two musicians and an actor have left us. On those days, I felt sad. I wept because great genius was lost—as it was today with the passing of boxing great, Muhammad Ali—but today, my eyes are arid.
Because Ali is a different equation, for the accepted definition of Muhammad Ali does not fit the man. Yes, he was the greatest. A man who moved like a startled deer and hit harder than an unexpected gas bill. A man who had the tongue of a telemarketer, who could cut off your escape; a man who transformed his sport, twice. The man who rumbled jungles, thrilled Manila, and fought the century.
But all that seems prosaic. Because Ali is not a boxer. The boxing version of him died when it was mashed into a stomach turning paste by Larry Holmes in 1980. Ali’s true legacy is the bouts he fought against blows not swung upon his person, but rather upon his people. A true pioneer of racial equality, he just used sport as the medium to deconstruct his message, much like Jackie Robinson did in 1947 when he integrated Major League Baseball. Ali threw the yoke of white oppression when he shed his name, “Cassius was my slave name, I am no longer a slave,” and united a generation behind him for refusing the trumpet call of Vietnam.
All of which made the Ali legend grow long before today’s final bell. I don’t feel sad, because it doesn’t feel like the final page. Legend is the most fitting word to describe Ali. According to Webster’s he fits both definitions. He was a person that inspires, but he is also a popular myth of recent origin. Perhaps with the debilitating Parkinson’s Disease he fought and his retreat from the public eye, he kept alive the best of Ali—whichever that Ali was—and thus bore the winding narrative, unchecked by its author, as more chapters were built by the pen of hearsay, assumption, and, most crucially, the guttural feelings he stirred in those he touched.
It seems that Ali is almost a fictional character and thus he cannot die. His story will merely lay dormant until new hands discover it.