I know Ali was a 7/1 underdog who wasn’t supposed to last a round when he first fought Liston. I know Kinshasa was expected to be the scene of his sad finale not his finest hour. And yet knowing the expected outcomes isn’t the same as appreciating Ali’s achievements in defying them. It isn’t possible to grasp the true improbability of a past event because once you know that it happened, it no longer feels improbable. I envy the sense of wonder that those who lived through his career must have felt.
I remember the first time I watched a recording of the Rumble in the Jungle. It was dramatic but it was the drama of a Hollywood blockbuster; ups and downs but always safe in the knowledge that the good guy will win in the end. Nothing like the experience of those who watched it live, minds heavy with fear of the worst but hearts hoping against hope that the aging former champ could find the brilliance of old.
Those of us who experienced Ali’s career only as history, have never been free to build our own view of him. It's hard to get a true sight of the man when peering through the thick haze of myth and legend. When you see a legend fully formed, without living through the process that made it, the most wondrous thing of all is obscured: that every legend starts with an unknown. I wish I’d had the chance to see the young Ali enter the scene as just another prospect. I wish I’d had the chance to see "just another prospect" become a colossus.
Even with the defining events of his career now many years ago, Ali’s ability somehow defies the passage of time. It seems impossible for a talent that emerged in the 1960s to still feel revolutionary today. Imagine listening to the Beatles for the first time today; it wouldn’t feel revolutionary because you’ve heard so many imitators. Yet if you were to see Ali box for the first time today, you would still feel that heady thrill. He has inspired so many but Ali at his best was beyond imitation, a one-off combination of pace, power and chutzpah.
Growing up with post-Ali boxing leaves you regretting not just having missed him but also the sport at its peak. The years have seen Ali’s stature grow ever greater while boxing’s has diminished; he dwarfs the sport. Many of those who have been paying tribute to him over the past few weeks have little interest in or even actively dislike boxing. But when we celebrate Ali, we should be paying tribute to the sport that made him.
Boxing brought out Ali’s greatness because it demanded everything of him, body and soul (in the end, it demanded too much). It has been said countless times that we will not see his like again. We must, however, continue to believe in the possibility of new legends. For all its flaws and its sunken status in our society, boxing continues to make those same near unholy demands of its participants. Give up on the possibility of greatness and we’re left with nothing but an ugly freak show.