A Song For Muhammad Ali

The beauty and the beast of modern times is that we can all mourn together. Well, at least that’s one of the byproducts of our interconnected world these days. No longer waiting for the announcement of one’s passing to settle (or in a most creepy sense, not waiting for the actual passing), the instant remembrances after the death of a public figure become more than expressions of sadness from many admirers. Collectively, they unfortunately become an event in and of itself.

At some point, you’d have to think that everything that needs to be said has been said about Muhammad Ali. It almost feels trite for anyone who works in this business to spin yarn about the boxing accomplishments or even the symbol he became with the platform he was given. And yet, it’s done because while we demand everything under the sun from a sports figure while (s)he is living, we turn those lofty expectations inward when it’s time to mourn his or her loss. From every observer, every word has to be right, every word has to strike a chord, every word has to reveal something new, every word has to reflect someone’s truth — his, hers or yours, if not the truth.

Perhaps that’s why in the wake of his passing, the initial thought was that someone, or rather a band, had put together the right words a long time ago.

There’s a song aptly named after him on Faithless’ biggest-selling album, the 2001 LP Outrospective. Maxi Jazz, the band’s vocalist, takes us through his own childhood over samples from two upbeat tracks from 1979: Archie Bell & the Drells’ 1979 “Strategy” and Uncle Louie’s “I Like Funky Music.” The track is a black boy’s ode to a black hero, someone who wasn’t just a mere athlete, but a belief system, if not exactly a religious deity.

Whether the British trio of Jazz, Sister Bliss and Rollo were consciously aware of it or not, the sampling choices were unexpectedly inspired ones — not so much for the listener, but for the year those songs were released.

It was in '79 that Ali retired after a decline that compelled his longtime doctor Ferdie Pacheco to quit. Yet, as many who followed his career painfully recalled, he unretired rather quickly for a 1980 fight not even his opponent — the criminally overlooked Larry Holmes — wanted to have. Perhaps forgiving previously tough bouts, including the infamous one against Earnie Shavers, his fans desperately held out hope that he could rope-a-dope the naysayers once again. If he could say "no" to the United States government, a proverbial bobbing-and-weaving of the system, he could do just about anything, they believed. That included defying the odds that he would not capture an unprecedented fourth world heavyweight championship.

You’ve heard the story about that night by now, best told in word by Ali’s own friend, the venerable Jerry Izenberg. It is also one of the premier early editions of ESPN’s 30 for 30, Muhammad and Larry. The bout ended in arguably the saddest unanimous decision in boxing history, yet it also spoke to how stirring and strong of a belief many held that Ali could have been the only human to ever outwit, if not outbox, Father Time.

Muhammad Ali made plenty of young black and brown kids — and some old ones such as your own parents and grandparents — believe that they could become just about anything and become anything their own way. He wasn’t the first black athlete, let alone heavyweight titlist, to be brash and bold, as even he was heavily influenced by boxing’s first black world heavyweight champion, Jack Johnson. He wasn’t the first black heavyweight champion to speak out about social issues, either, as another man he admired (and eventually fought) in Floyd Patterson lent his voice to the Civil Rights Movement before Ali joined the Nation of Islam. If anything, he was revolutionary in a similar vein to Jackie Robinson because his athletic prowess meant that he could not be ignored when he spoke his mind.

However, while we have spent the last week heralding the light he shone to racial injustice, the dark spot of his legacy is hard to ignore unless you willfully choose to. Whether one believes it was done to promote fights (as was alleged with Patterson) or to reveal something much more sinister in his nature at the time, his abhorrent treatment of Joe Frazier and indirect attempts at reconciliation still stand in stark contrast to all else he spoke up for and against in his heyday.

In 1979 and into 1980 leading up to the Holmes fight, many admirers had taken the sum of a life being lived and a society growing more comfortable with civil disagreements and hoped that Ali still had it. Certainly the divisiveness was still there as some idiots proved in recent days since his passing, but the appreciation for the sports figure as both a fighter and a symbol picked up steam at that time and went relatively uninterrupted. When you really think about it, in some respects, Ali was the Malcolm X that America decided to accept because in a nation that obsesses over its sports, his athletic dominance and spotlight served to back up every single word he said, whether you wanted to hear it or not.

Today as Muhammad Ali is laid to eternal rest in his hometown of Louisville, the appreciation of him has reached a fever pitch, perhaps at an emotional height not honestly seen since he told the U.S. Army “no.” On its Facebook page, Faithless posted the official video for its song shortly after his passing was announced with the quote, “You are the original…" It’s a fitting song and a fitting quote. Even though Ali admired and borrowed from several of his heroes to become something grander, millions of young black boys admired and borrowed from him to become something more. Muhammad Ali was their original.

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