Death comes for us all. It does not discriminate. It does not matter if we are rich or poor, young or old. It does not matter if we are lauded for our greatness or ignored for our commonness. On the night of June 3rd death came for a man many would count among the giants of the 20th century. Muhammad Ali was unique, brilliant, uncompromising, and above all human.
Though I am not so fortunate as to count myself among his family or close friends, his passing still evoked the feelings of loss that one feels at the passing of a respected elder. I was born years after he had finished his boxing career. Everything that I heard about him as I grew up came from old news clips and stories my parents told me from their memories of watching his live broadcasts. From an early age, I was struck by his wit, athleticism and confidence. The first words I heard him speak came from an old recording of him talking about his historic fight with Sonny Liston, the iconic “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. A lot of his witticisms were often disregarded as the vainglorious ravings of a man that seemed invincible in the gladiatorial arena that was his boxing ring. The truth is that if you listened to him enough, you heard more than just an arrogant athlete with a razor sharp tongue or a passionate advocate for his religion and his people. You saw real wisdom. Muhammad Ali was in every sense a virum philosophum.
His political stances on the war in Vietnam, police brutality, the economic and political oppression of Black people globally, and the prison systems of the day were rife with thought and nuance. In a time when many Black people were just finding their voice to speak out against their oppression, he was a master orator. He refused to be cowed when faced with threats to his person, his family, or his legacy. He fought to be the greatest both in the ring and on the street. When they stripped his title and banned him from boxing for his refusal to go to Vietnam, he fought for three years until he was again admitted. Before long he was the champion again. Every step of the way he would not be silenced. He locked eyes with white supremacy and begged it to throw the first punch. He beat his chest and begged imperialism to come for him. He never minced words about the oppression of his people and was unafraid to speak truth to power. All of these things he did with eloquence, rhythm, and grace.
Outside of the ring and away from the cameras, he read and he wrote poetry. He was a philanthropist at every level, from founding organizations such as the Ali Care Program, to serving food in soup kitchens. His convictions were deeply rooted in a mixture of his desire to provide a strong example of self-actualization for his people at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, and his devout faith as a Muslim. When he was struck with Parkinson’s disease, he looked ahead into the years of slow decay that he would face, and he did not blink. Into his twilight years he continued to remain active in making the most of his brief flicker of time on this earth to make it better for the next generation.
Muhammad Ali was more than just a great boxer; he was a man of conviction, a master orator, and a poet. He was a champion, and not because he threw some punches and won a title. He was a champion because he fought for something more. He fought not only for his own humanity; he fought for the humanity of his people. He fought for the dignity of his religion. He fought for his rights at home and would not be moved. He fought for my parents, even though he never met them. He fought for me before I took my first breath and he fought for the children I hope to have that will never live in the same time as a man like him.
To his family, I want to extend my deepest condolences at the loss of someone so dear. Before he was anything to any of us, he was everything to you. To you Mr. Ali, though you may never read these words, thank you for all that you were. Thank you for everything. Your time is done and may you rest in peace in God’s arms in heaven, and in the words of your faith inna Iillahi wa inna Ilayhi raaji’oon. You will always be the champion to me.
Adam H.C. Myrie