TNT made a documentary about Ali; it seems to have been mostly forgotten, and I’m among the forgetful. It was six-hours long and, obviously, expansive; the reason why is that it shows big chunks of fights, almost all of the first Frazier fight, in addition to the politics and religion and celebrity and everything else that came with Muhammad Ali.
My father and my uncle got along because they had to; my father thought my uncle was a deadbeat, and my uncle thought my father was a little prick; both were mostly right, but for an entire evening, they were best friends watching this documentary. Neither had been one of the Champ’s title fights–they were not fancy men–but had trooped out to the local Loews to watch the closed-circuit feed with the rest of the masses, and maybe that’s why they loved him so much: to my father and my uncle, Ali was larger-than-life.
From Louisville to Rome to Miami Beach to Vegas to the Garden to Zaire to Manila, and these two aging Jews were there with him, cheering the Champ on. Mostly. Neither got the Muslim thing at the time, but neither of them wanted to go to Vietnam at the time, either. They had taken dates to the fights, or gone with friends; these people had names like Donna Hufnagel, and Shushy Flakowitz. Afterwards, there may have been tuggers, or auto theft. (Every male member of my family from the generation before mine has at least one story where he stole a car, or was arrested for stealing a car he owned, or some other car theft-related nonsense.) It’s a long film, but neither of them moved, and my father smiled a lot. He would forget to do that some weeks.
Ali was a mirror-image of Elvis. (He was bigger than Elvis, or any singer, could ever be. You can only sing in one language, but Ali fought, and that could be universally understood.) They had their best years taken by the government, and returned to even greater fame and success; they were surrounded by thieves, weasels, and goons; they were both at least half-crazy.
There, were, however major differences: Elvis was–let’s face the truth–one of the dumbest fucks you’ll ever meet, whereas Muhammad Ali believed some dumb shit at times, but was in fact an intelligent and thoughtful man. And though they were both Sons of the South, they were from different sides of the family.
Muhammad Ali was post-war America; when they write the book, he has to be in it. He meant something, and he even stood for something once or twice, and though the world threw punch after punch, he leaned back into the ropes and came back stronger. But, 2016 is the year that the 20th century dies.
Ali was bigger than us. He was glorious. I like chopping people down to size, but the axe hasn’t been made that could bring Muhammad Ali down. His value will be debated by men and women lesser than he, and for a long time, but that doesn’t matter. I sat there with my father and my uncle watching the Champ fight, and my dad smiled as he remembered his youth, as the crowd cheered for Muhammad Ali, who was the Greatest of All Time.