by Mack Williams
5 June 2016
I recently sent some friends a column I found which listed the writer’s top 10 NBA players of all time. A good list, but one which would not be the same if compiled by many other people; one hundred fans might have one hundred different lists, all valid in their own right and by their own standards. The various eras in which people competed are weighed differently by each individual, which is why one person will call Babe Ruth the greatest baseball player of all time, while another will give that title to Willie Mays, and another to Ken Griffey, Jr. But with respect to the top athlete of all time, both inside and outside of their arena of competition, there is no debate and only one The Greatest.
My wife spent her birthday – yesterday – away with her sister, and as I wished her a Happy Birthday, I had to tell her she could not do trips with her sister anymore as my mind raced back seven Junes ago when, while she was away with her sister, we learned of the death of Michael Jackson. Then again, maybe she can…the icons of my childhood are just about all gone.
But in the midst of sadness over the death of Muhammad Ali…and my young cousin Kisha as well as anyone else that you may have lost from within your personal circles…the great thing is that though their physical bodies may be gone, the memories that we have of them will live on forever. My only in-person memory of Ali was when I was crossing a street in Times Square some years back, and noticed a big commotion on the other side of the street. Being curious, I picked one guy at random to ask if he knew what was going on there, and he – by the sound of his voice, possibly a native of a middle eastern nation – said simply, “Muhammad Ali.” I raced across the street – in a manner reminiscent of when we as seventh graders flew across the street upon seeing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar down the block from our school – and joined the commotion. Soon after, a white guy among this group that had mobbed Ali said something to him, addressing him as “champ.”
“Did you say champ or chump,” Ali playfully asked.
“I said champ,” the man replied. “I would never call you chump. You’re bigger than I am.”
“Did you say bigger, or nigg3r?”
The assembled crowd roared. Ali was bigger than he was, bigger than boxing, bigger than everything. I knew that when I took my 12-year-old son to see the R-rated Ali film starring Will Smith, saying that it was history. Somehow I knew that back on the night of March 8th, 1971, the night of the Fight of the Century, as I lay in bed hours after my too-early bedtime while pretending to be asleep, under the covers with my radio to my ear waiting for each round’s analysis to be given, and ultimately hoping against hope for a favorable decision when the 15th round report said Joe Frazier had knocked Ali down.
I knew that when I sat at Madison Square Garden watching the closed circuit telecast of the “Rumble In The Jungle,” and half of our section was shouting at Ali to get off the ropes – as if he could hear us all the way in Zaire – until we began to get a sense that this was his strategy. After the sixth round a guy seated two rows behind me said Ali would knock the mighty George Foreman out within two rounds. “I hope you’re right,” I said, and then as the eighth round was almost over I was about to turn to him when it happened, and the pandemonium happened, and he and I and a whole bunch of people who had never seen each other in life were embracing like long lost family. Ali Bomaye.
And I knew he was bigger, and badder, and brasher when his fights would be on TV and some of the real old folks would be rooting for his opponents. “He talks too much. I want Clay to get knocked on his behind to shut him up.” That’s precisely why we loved him, and why I had to see him – with little money and no ticket – in one of his last fights, taking advantage of the ingenuity of some hustlers I encountered outside the closed circuit location to sneak in…only to see Ali lose badly to Larry Holmes.
During the discussions on television since Ali passed people spoke of how things might have been had Ali not lost the three and a half years to his unjust suspension, but that only touches on his in-ring record. As a result of the theft of his bike at age twelve, he learned to box and an Olympic gold medalist and world champion emerged, but as a result of his suspension, the real champion emerged. Oh, he might have had a long run with the title or might not have lost three of his last four fights, but I suspect that if you could ask him – outside of Parkinson’s – he would not change a thing.
RIP, champ. I would never call you chump. You’re bigger than I am. You’re The Greatest.