For all the arrogance, the brash over-the-top cockiness, and the perceived lack of humility from Muhammad Ali, one non-debatable truth exists: he was a man of conviction.
In 2016, athletes are often chastised for speaking their thoughts on controversial issues. Lebron James has been ripped on both sides for not doing enough or doing too much regarding the Tamir Rice story. When certain NBA players showed up with "I Can't Breathe" shirts to games, pundits were quick to condemn them for "speaking out". And even speaking out on much less controversial issues are frowned upon, such as Deangelo Williams being fined for wanting to honor his late mother who died of breast cancer by wearing a pink ribbon on his eye black during games. God forbid we violate the honorable uniform code.
While the actions of today's athletes are noble in their own right, Muhammad Ali took activism to a level not seen since.
His decision to not go fight in the Vietnam War did more than cast public court dispersions on his character. He was stripped of his titles by the World Boxing Federation and imprisoned for refusing to do what hundreds of thousands of other American men his age were doing. Nearly four years of his boxing prime were lost because of the stand he took. And he was hated for it.
The term draft dodger is often used to rip a political opponent for cowering out of a civic duty. Ali, however, was not refusing entrance into the draft for reasons of cowardice. He held a genuine conviction that war was wrong, especially this war, and had no desire to take part in the unfortunate dynamic of innocent deaths in war. Not just that, but the civil rights hypocrisy that it entailed:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" (Ali, 1967)
Many at the time deemed Ali unpatriotic. It was enough that he was a brash young black man unafraid to speak his mind, but add on to that the name change from Cassius Clay because of his Muslim Faith, Ali was a prime target for flaming arrows of conservative criticism, especially from white Americans. Remember, we like our star athletes to perform and entertain, not take stands on controversial issues.
Ali made people uncomfortable. He was the greatest trash talker of all time, and he often backed it up. That didn't mean people loved him. Speaking your mind is often only acceptable when the majority of people agree with you. A black man living in the south speaking out against a national war in the 1960's? You can imagine the tension.
It's not as if Ali didn't have a basis for his feelings. It's not like he was some naive and mentally unbalanced superstar, tolerated because everyone knew he was just a bit different than everyone else. Ali experienced the tumult of the times. He may have been a superstar athlete, but he was still a black man, which, in 1960's America, made you second-class.
According to Jeremy Schaap, the story goes at an airport a white sportswriter sat at a table with the famous Ali, both ordering root beer floats. When the server came back to the table he handed the writer a nice frosted glass filled to the top. The server also set down a paper cup, saying "the cup is for the boy."
With slight embarrassment but opportune directness, the sportswriter probed Ali, asking what he felt when the server treated him like that. Ali told him it didn't bother him. Why should I let the way some idiot treats me bother me, he thought. And while personal attacks were not something he felt particularly vengeful about, it was the greater good of African-Americans that Ali felt responsible for lobbying for in whatever means necessary.
We look back now on Ali and the things he said in the context of the time he was living in and label him a revolutionary. He's the greatest, not just in the ring. And the mythical god-like quality of Ali only existed, as Jim Brown suggested because Parkinson's forced him to be quiet. This made him more palatable.
Swagger was born with Muhammad Ali. He called himself beautiful, told people how great he was, and absolutely annihilated opponents in the ring. He was cooler than cool but was such with purpose. He was a man that floated like a butterfly, stung like a bee, and ripped through American culture like a tornado.
Today's American culture of sports heroes is filled with big egos and trash-talking. The irony in this is that the same cockiness Ali exhibited we memorialize with fondness, yet rip the quarterback boasting after touchdowns. The same Ali who prompted so much social change we honor with words like "legacy" and "pioneer", yet we're quick to shut down the athlete speaking out about police brutality or Black Lives Matter issues.
Muhammad Ali was as complicated a man as he was a dominant fighter. His name was and will forever be synonymous with the great sports figures in history such as Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan. But Ali raised a cultural friction that impacted lives far beyond the boxing ring. Indeed, the discomfort Ali was willing to embrace has reached decades ahead, giving us freedom and understanding we may not have experienced otherwise. This is the reason he truly was the greatest.