Life and death of an icon who transcended sport
Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30
What could have been arrogance was charm, what could have been smart aleckry was poetry, what could have been trash talk was defiant comedy, what could have been brutality and mere sport was grace and beauty.
Everything about him was enhanced through the prism of his incredible charisma, to give it a spark of the divine. Even his second act, this beautiful, intelligent creature reduced to what could have seemed like a broken old man - broken by the very thing that made him a god - transcended tragedy to become a lesson in dignity and humanity.
He was transcendent. He transcended sport, race, religion, the '60s, the counterculture, show business, politics and even Vietnam ("I ain't got nothing against no Viet Cong - no Viet Cong never called me nigger"). He tussled with all those things and floated through them dispensing the odd bee sting, for a period even turning on the white people who worshipped him. But none of these things defined him. He was always more - more than any of it, more than just a sportsman, more than just a Muslim.
He transcended all that to become what we call an icon, a man who has greater meaning than any mere human - and indeed a man to whom many meanings are ascribed. He became a symbol of our better natures, of the possibilities of a man, of how to wear greatness lightly while also revelling in it, of the American dream in all its complexity and conflict.
When Donald Trump talks about making America great again, it is that spirit of Ali he is trying in vain to invoke.
When we think of America's greatness and influence in the modern era the truth is that, for most of us, it is not about politics in the conventional sense. It is about spirit and stories and icons. The tragedy of Marilyn, the eternal youth of James Dean, the wonder but the injustice of Elvis's music, career and life.
It was through these icons that modern America colonised the western world. These are the ones who transcend their flawed humanity, whose very image comes to mean more than they ever did. They are grabbed by Warhol, or whoever, and made immortal. Shepard Fairey's 'Hope' poster of Obama will probably outlive our memories of Obama's own flawed, merely human self.
As Elvis showed us, it's hard to be a human being, still alive, trapped in the cage of being an icon, a living myth, when underneath it all you are only human like the rest of us. Ali, despite his sad disintegration, allowed himself to be a living myth, allowed himself to be a symbol for people, and he did it with his customary grace and magnetism.
Parkinson's may have dimmed the light of his mind and his body, but it did nothing to diminish his spirit. Now he is free at last - it took his life, it could not take his pride.