The Heavyweight Champion of the World used to be the most coveted title in sports. It’s hard to imagine now, considering how terrible the heavyweight division has been for the pass two decades.
I missed seeing Ali in his prime, although watching his old fights and several documentaries (especially When We Were Kings) has given me a singular appreciation of his genius. There simply has never been another athlete with his confidence, swagger, speed, intensity, and power.
Ali is a towering figure in the public consciousness. At some point, every child pretends to box. The phrase ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ is somehow known by each one of them, even if they have never heard of Ali. Similarly, Rope-a-Dope is a phrase used by many who probably can’t explain the origin of the term. Ali is so ingrained in our collective memory, his personality and greatest moments seem to exist apart from him, as if we are born with the knowledge of his spirit.
Atlanta, 1996. I was at the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics. This was before smartphone technology was rampant. As I remember it, the specific person to light the torch was kept an absolute secret. For weeks leading up to it, we debated who would get this incredible honor. Who is the athlete we would lift up to the world as most emblematic of America?
The moment came and with each subsequent athlete bringing the torch ever closer, possible choices were eliminated. As Janet Evans brought the torch to the final stage, Ali emerged and in the moment, it seemed the entire world lost its mind with joy. The stadium convulsed with emotion, each person desperate to let Ali know that he was the one. Not just a great choice to light the cauldron, in hindsight he was the only choice.
He was the greatest.