Muhammad Ali: All That’s Left Behind Is an Empty Space

Lately, I find myself thinking about an imaginary sports figure who is an awful lot like, say, Marshawn Lynch.

My imaginary athlete is “very” dark-skinned; my imaginary athlete has dreadlocks; my imaginary athlete has a gold chain; my imaginary athlete is from the South and he sounds like it. My imaginary athlete makes a habit of rhyming when he speaks; my imaginary athlete was once a petty criminal and isn’t particularly apologetic about it; my imaginary athlete is ostentatious, confident, talented, and angry.

And on some interview show, my imaginary Marshawn Lynch says, “I ain’t got no quarrel with ISIS. ISIS never called me a ‘nigger.’”  


The implicit task in writing about Muhammad Ali’s legacy is effectively a tautological one–it is to assess the greatness of Muhammad Ali’s legacy. So let’s start in the easiest place possible: by noting that Muhammed Ali was not the greatest boxer of all time.

According to this incredible piece of writing, that title belongs to Sam Langford. Or maybe to Sugar Ray Robinson. Or maybe Joe Louis. Maybe to Jack Johnson, maybe to Henry Armstrong.

I wouldn’t know. My earliest memories of Ali are less of him as an athlete, and more as one of the revolving characters on “Wide World of Sports,” and in truth I don’t know a whole lot about boxing other than it makes me nervous when people hit each other. But in our collective race to reframe him since his death, it’s become immaterial how good a fighter Ali was, because we are mostly tasked with measuring how “important” he was as a porto-cultural theorist. It’s there–as he placed himself directly into the breach of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement–that his transcendence emerges.  

Meaning: it matters that he beat Sonny Liston in 1964 (and, of course, was eminently quotable immediately after). And it matters that he lost to Joe Frazier in New York, and it matters that he beat Foreman in Zaire, and Frazier in Manilla.

But it matters a great deal more that in 1964, a famous black athlete denounced his birth name as a “slave name,” it matters a great deal more that Muhammad Ali called Joe Frazier an “Uncle Tom” who worked for the enemy and that enemy was, writ large, White America. It matters more that a famous black man called boxing “a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up,” and it matters a great deal more that a famous black man said, “I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”

Even now, thirty years later, I remember pretty clearly the effect all that transcendence could have.

I saw Ali interviewed during halftime of a college football game–it was New Year’s Day, I was young, this would have been the very early ’80s. Ali had just retired. As my parents and their friends were working their way through pork and sauerkraut and a keg of Schaefer, just the sight of Ali was enough to turn the room, and one guy–we’ll call him Frank–said loudly, “Look at that jungle boy. You can barely understand a word he says.”

Frank is drunk; he’s a tough guy with a mustache. He does a kind of guttural sing-songy thing which is meant to represent a younger Ali’s rhetorical cadences, and he gets a few laughs.

We’d been watching African American men play football and talk about football all day, but when it’s Ali, it’s different. Someone else–we’ll call her Mary Jo–says, “Throw him a banana and watch him dance,” and the laughs grow much louder.


All that transcendence. All that effect.

In writing about Ali, I keep running into this economic question of value where I want to rubber-stamp Ali’s legacy exactly the way everyone else has done in the usual ways–by cataloguing him. Cataloguing his rhetorical brilliance, his charisma, his impossible athleticism, his courage as an activist, and, of course, the Olympic Torch thing. Then calling him a hero and worrying about what it is we’ve lost.

In some way that is the Ali story mechanism–a catalogue of almost impossible (and sometimes contradictory) attributes and iconic images, each bound together and replayed quickly, like a flip book.

And then I imagine turning on Fox News the morning after my imaginary Marshawn Lynch says the thing about ISIS, and goes on to say something like, “Most white people are snakes,” and also says something like, “No black person should join the Army to kill Iraqis so that more white people get rich,” and I try to imagine fully the viscera that would follow. What happens on Twitter and Facebook, what happens on the campaign trail, what happens on “Around the Horn” and on Fox Sports, what Paul Allen and Roger Goodell each say, exactly what the flaying sounds like.

It’s hard to wrap your head around all of it, but the upshot will be this: Things are a whole lot better than they used to be, that athletes like my imaginary Marshawn Lynch are just too spoiled to know better.

But of course, that’s not true at all. It’s 2016, and in 2016 African American infants are 2.4 times more likely to die than white infants, African Americans drug users are three times as likely to be arrested as white drug users, one in six African American men are serving time in prison, and African Americans are murdered at a higher rate than anyone else in any other industrialized country in the world.    

And in the two short days since Muhammad Ali died, something like 18,000 more African Americans have been imprisoned, more than twenty were killed by a gun, and this idiot senator spent a day dancing on his grave.

If we are to assume Muhammad Ali’s legacy is something larger than boxing–if we are to assume his legacy is tied directly to his commitment to human rights, and to the sacrifices he made in order to pursue them, and his commitment to living a reasonably just life–I’m stuck wondering out loud if we can find any tangible proof that his legacy has meant anything to us at all. That his legacy has indeed amounted to anything more than a mythological narrative largely co-opted by Sports Illustrated and the like, about a charismatic guy with a plastic face who said a lot of controversial things but was ultimately just a really nice guy.

I’m stuck wondering what happens to imaginary Marshawn Lynch when he holds Ali’s mirror up to Ferguson, when he asks the same questions, when he uses the same language.

What strikes me is that Ali’s legacy is in fact our nation’s shared legacy of failure. That in the 50 years since Muhammad Ali refused induction to the military, we’ve been told–by black athletes and politicians, by activists and reverends, by mothers and fathers–that ours is neither a free nor a particularly just country, that there are many different Americas, and that while those Americas coincide they do not coexist. And in response, we deny our present, we deify our dead totems, and we hope against hope that no one says anything too closely representing the truth.


Mike Simpson is a writer based in Lancaster, PA. You should follow him on Twitter.