Police escort the hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali as it passes through the crowded street in front of his boyhood home during his funeral procession Friday, June 10, 2016, in Louisville, Ky. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Many of the articles and columns I’ve read about Muhammad Ali’s legacy were written by boxing aficionados who grew up during Ali’s era, have met Ali or have seen him in person.
Conversely, I never met the boxing legend; I never spoke with him; I’m certainly too young (at the age of 21) to have grown up during his era and I’ve never even seen the man in person, which means the only accounts I have of Ali are from YouTube videos, newspapers and online articles and television programs or conversations I’ve had with older people.
However, I can say that Ali had such an immense impact on me as a young Black male, I regard him as the most influential athlete in the history of American sports. In addition, the unrivaled contributions he made to humanity and his unique way with words and phrases are beyond admirable.
While I don’t share Ali’s religious beliefs, I never let religion negatively affect my appreciation for the three-time heavyweight champion. Besides Michael Jordan, Ali has had the greatest impact on my generation than any other Black sports figure (and yes, that includes LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Cam Newton).
Movies like “The Greatest” (1977), the story of Ali’s life, documentaries like “Rumble in the Jungle” (1974) and Ali’s guest appearances on the Johnny Carson and Michael Parkinson shows are only a few of the TV programs that heightened my appreciation for Ali as an influential Black figure for young people to pattern their lives after.
Of the countless Ali interviews, speeches and articles I’ve read and watched, the most commendable, perhaps, is an Oct. 13, 1984 column written by R.B. Jones in the Baltimore AFRO. In Jones’s column, entitled “Meaning of Muhammad Ali,” he brilliantly used Ali’s unmatched skill in the ring as a metaphor to illustrate how Black Americans should address issues that faced their communities.
“Ali represents an amalgamation of character traits that we as Black people should emulate,” Jones wrote. “If Black people believed in our ability to win freedom justice and economic self-determination half as much as Ali believed in his individual skills this nation would be a very different one. If we Black people believed in each other the way Ali believed in his shuffle and his rope-a-dope and his miraculous left jab there would be no need to bemoan the state of Black America,” he continued.
In a recent column entitled “Muhammad Ali, the People’s Champion” by George E. Curry and published on the AFRO’s website, the columnist said this about Ali: “Whether in his prime or just a shell of his old self, Ali was one of the world’s most recognized and beloved public figures, a brash boxer whose punches and physical dexterity could back up the words that flowed from his mouth.”
Curry, who said he met Ali twice, knows what he’s talking about. Despite LeBron’s emphatic dunks, MJ’s highly treasured shoe brand and Cam Newton’s athletic uniqueness, Ali remains – by far – the most impactful champion the sports world has ever witnessed.
Demetrius Dillard is an intern at the Baltimore office of the AFRO American. He is a senior at Winston-Salem State University.