Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ali and a triumvirate of icons

Yesterday, Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74 from a respiratory condition. Widely considered to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time (if not the greatest boxer, period), Ali is also one of the most widely recognized athletes, indeed one of the most widely recognized public figures, in the modern world. To call Ali an icon would be an understatement. And this is not only because of his success as a boxer, it is because of his larger-than-life personality.

When Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier in March of 1971, Ali was 29 years old. When he exacted revenge on Frazier in 1974, then followed it up by beating George Foreman (the "Rumble in the Jungle") later in the year, he was 32. I was 6 and 9, respectively. I can't claim to remember much about Ali, apart from remembering that he was a boxer and a Big Deal. In an age without ESPN, without the internet, where sportstalk occurred primarily primarily between real live people in face to face situations, Muhammad Ali generally held a highly revered position: the greatest of all time. As a child, I vaguely remember the references to Ali that I heard from adults or happen to catch on TV and I partook of that reverence. I may not have known much about boxing, about life in general, but I know Ali was The Greatest.

And as I got older, this knowledge became a standard, a fact as it were. Years later, when Mike Tyson was forging his career and being widely lauded as the true successor to Ali's throne, I understood. Even as I watched Tyson demolish opponent after opponent in real time—which was not the case with Ali—I knew still that Ali would always be the greatest, for that surety was, by then, ingrained in me from childhood. I knew as a child knows; I still do. Such is the way of things.

In this regard, there are other figures in the realm of sports who occupy a similar place in my mind, a position of absolute greatness that will never be challenged, much less overcome. They are from that same period of my life, the formative years when I was aware of what was being said around me by adults, when I began to exchange ideas with other kids my own age, when I was able to fully process what I saw on TV and in newspapers.

To this day, there are three who still stand out, who will always be firmly fixed in my mind as the gods of their respective sports. The first is, of course, Ali. I am very much a fan of boxing to this day and while I have seen many great fighters, it is and will always be Ali. If someone says to me "so and so is the greatest fighter of all time," my retort begins and ends with Ali. Show me numbers, footage, or what have you, it doesn't matter.

The second, well the second is a baseball player. I honestly don't care much for baseball, but my father is a huge fan. And his team was and is the Yankees. Unsurprisingly, it's a former Yankee who is fixed in my mind here: Reggie Jackson, Mr. October. Because in those same formative years of mine, when Ali was reestablishing his dominance of the heavyweight division, Reggie Jackson was becoming Mr. October with his clutch-hitting in the playoffs, first with Oakland, then with New York. And like Ali, Jackson was a larger-than-life personality. Do I think Jackson is the greatest baseball player ever? No, of course not. But to me, he is baseball, he's the guy who walks up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with thousands of fans booing him mercilessly, who then drills the first pitch over the center field wall. And he always will be.

The last of the triumvirate is not a man. It's not a woman, either (though if I was to choose a fourth icon, it would most assuredly be Chris Evert). It's a horse: Secretariat. I'm not a horse-racing fan, either. I went to the track a few weeks ago and it was the first time I had been in well over a decade. It's just not my thing. But in 1973, everyone was watching the Triple Crown, or at least everyone around me was. And I watched, too. And I cheered for the horses, not really knowing much more than what I was seeing were races. But races were easy understand. And when one racer beats the tar out of everyone else, it's pretty obvious. The awe of the adults around me was obvious, too, especially after the Belmont. I get kick out of the build-up to the Triple Crown ever year, when it so obvious that the broadcasters are hoping, praying for another Secretariat. But they never get one. And in my mind, they never will.

What does all this mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, not much. Ali's passing just got me to thinking about my perception of him, how it was a product of childhood idealism, and how that perception persists to this day. So too for Jackson and Secretariat. Ali and Jackson have there foibles, to be sure (Secretariat is still a horse) and I'm not recommending either for sainthood. But this is ultimately about the simplicity of perception in a child's point of view, and the role of the same in shaping and producing our assumptions about the way things are, how things from different times compare, and how personal experiences define expectations going forward.

I wonder about my own children, in this regard. How will they see their recent past in relation to their present and future, not just with regard to sports, but with regard to all things? Who will be the iconic figures of their childhoods? Who will they consider to be The Greatest? Will any of my icons even warrant a mention?

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