R.I.P. Muhammad Ali

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Take 10 minutes to watch this incredible tribute:

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“…Last to face the cameras was LeBron James, and he drew the biggest crowd. There were many things Ali was known for. There was his outlandish personality, which manifested itself in some of the greatest trash talk in sports history. There were his preternatural skills. No heavyweight possessed his combination of speed and skill. At his best, he was invincible, though everyone wanted to test him. Bob Arum, Ali’s longtime promoter, loves to tell the story of how in the mid-1960s, Jim Brown, the legendary running back, wanted to fight a young Ali. “So I went to talk to Ali,” Arum recalls. “He says, ‘Jim wants to do what? Bring him here.’ So I took him to Hyde Park in London, where Ali used to run. Ali said, ‘Jimmy, here is what we’re going to do: You hit me as hard as you can.’ So Brown starts swinging and swinging, and he can’t hit him. He’s swinging wildly and not even coming close. This goes on for, like, 30 seconds. Then Ali hits him with this quick one-two to his face. Jimmy just stops and says, ‘OK, I get the point.’ “Ali’s lasting legacy, though, was as a vehicle for social change. Ali was fearless, most notably in his opposition of the Vietnam war, a public battle that cost Ali years in the prime of his career. He had no filter; what he thought, he said, no matter how many criticized him for it. Today, Ali has no contemporary; elite athletes like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have often shied away from polarizing issues.

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…James has not. Whether through public comments or social media, James has rarely refused to address polarizing issues. In response to the death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teenager who was shot in 2012, James helped organize a Miami Heat team photo with players wearing hooded sweatshirts – Martin was killed while wearing one – and tweeted it with the hashtag #WeWantJustice. In the aftermath of the death of Eric Garner, a New York man who died from a chokehold during an altercation with police, James was one of the first to don a T-shirt with the words “I Can’t Breathe” on the front. “What he stood for, I mean, it’s a guy who basically had to give up a belt and [relinquish] everything that he had done because of what he believed in,” James said of Ali. “It’s a guy who stood up for so many different things throughout the times where it was so difficult for African-Americans to even walk in the streets. “For an athlete like myself today, without Muhammad Ali, I wouldn’t be sitting up here talking in front of you guys. I wouldn’t be able to walk in restaurants. I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere where blacks weren’t allowed back in those days [if it weren’t for] guys like Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Jackie Robinson, and the list goes on and on.” Ali set an impossible standard. He lived in a time in which the country could not have been more divided. His status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war – and his refusal to serve – cost him 3 ½ years of the prime of his career. Imagine, today, an elite athlete believing so strongly in something that he or she would be willing to walk away from a sport – and the millions that came with it. James is not Ali, but there are few athletes today whose words carry as much weight. James has known poverty, has known racism, has known the challenges of succeeding in a life no one expected him to. If Ali paved the way for athletes to become global stars, James is the latest to walk down it….continued”

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“Greatest doesn’t capture him…It is not big enough, it doesn’t do him justice”

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“….As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece. It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man. He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me. “First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?” “The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work….

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…It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to balk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth. After he hands me several more talks, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.

“Do you believe that phone made itself?”

No, I say.

“Do you believe the chair made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the table made itself?”

No.

“Do you believe the sun made itself?”

No.

“The Supreme Being made it.”

The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates. It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you. “For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have….continued”

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“I’ll tell you how I’d like to be remembered: as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as many of his people as he could–financially and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality. As a man who wouldn’t hurt his people’s dignity by doing anything that would embarrass them. As a man who tried to unite his people through the faith of Islam that he found when he listened to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad. And if all that’s asking too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxing champion who became a preacher and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”

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