When I was a kid, Muhammad Ali was a ubiquitous media figure, whether he was fighting or being interviewed or selling cologne on the television. I missed the early years of his career, and only learned about the political aspects of his fame much later. (a link to a fantastic article on Ali follows my post). As I encountered him, he was just one of the pantheon, a star of stars. Race, religion, and politics never entered into the equation any more than they did when I thought of my other childhood heroes: Willie Stargell, Mean Joe Green, and Mr. Rogers. I never realized until later just how bright Ali shined, the star among stars. Like many of my generation, we looked back on Ali with new interest long after he’d faded from public view, after he returned to the world stage at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, his trembling arm raised to light the Olympic flame, a man refusing to be bowed by age or the horribly ironic Parkinson’s that clawed at his body. I’ll never forget sitting in a restaurant near Wilson, Wyoming, drinking beer and eating pizza with friends, watching The Greatest ascend to light the torch, my eyes moist with respect and admiration. I cannot think of a person more deserving of the title, American Hero. He surely was that–as flawed as the rest of us, but possessed of a drive and determination that not only made him literally the greatest fighter of all time, but which drove him to risk everything for his beliefs, even when that meant potentially losing his career as well as his freedom. It is rare for us to see men who even come close to Ali’s stature. More is the pity.
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