Muhammad Ali maybe the most puzzling personality of our time. A quarter of a century after his athletic heyday, he continues to intrigue us, his celebrity self-sustaining, mysteriously independent of any word or deed. How is it that Ali remains such a mesmerizing presence?
Our old heroes have profited mightily in a culture of nostalgia, so much that no onetime superstar athlete need ever be poor as long as he can sign his name. Ali's appeal, though, goes beyond mere athletic homesickness. Besides the affection he enjoys, there's a genuine curiosity. Recent books and the new feature film Ali have strained to put his life in a social context, to make his race and religion part of a complicated story, in a complicated time. It's a good approach, and it's genuine. Ali's refusal to enter the draft during the Vietnam War and his subsequent exile from boxing surely added backstory to the elaborate drama he always preferred for himself. To regain the heavyweight championship after the U.S. took a three-year chunk out of his prime because he had "no quarrel with the Vietcong," or perhaps simply because he was black and a Muslim, well, that's heavy stuff.
Does that account, however, for his position in our society today, the shuffling Yoda who seems to leave nothing but serenity in his wake (page 124)? Ali's politics, even if they were his to begin with (he fell under the sway of Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam early on), don't seem terribly important after all this time, except for the fact that he embraced them despite the prevailing public and legal opinion. His sacrifice was personally noble but hardly historically monumental. He wasn't irrelevant by any means; a country can certainly be altered by the accretion of such self-sacrifice. But he wasn't Martin Luther King, nor did he ever pretend to be.
Ali was something much more interesting, at least as far as history ought to be concerned. He was original, all self-invention. His rhymes, his rope-a-dope, his ability to transform turmoil into a carnival act—these were riffs on top of the bass line of his time. A fantastic jazz. They were of a piece: the verbal high jinks, the right hand to George Foreman's jaw, his induction stance, the one not more important than the other. That was his genius, and the historians who insist upon significance miss the point. Ali wasn't some social artifact; he was much rarer than that. Just one of a kind is all.