It’s difficult to describe The Champ.  The challenge in capturing his essence is a testament to the layers of his beautiful, rich soul.  When you see someone handsome, you think model; when you see someone speak eloquently, you think orator; when you see someone fight well, you think boxer; when you see someone socially conscious, you think activist; and when you see someone make people laugh, you think comic.  But when all of these attributes coalesce, you have Muhammad Ali.

In deciding among the endless number of angles I could use to approach eulogizing Ali, I decided to use one of his quotes as an interpretive lens.  Ali once boldly proclaimed “I’m not the greatest, I’m the double greatest.”  The quote is just eight words, but it rings deeply true to me because Ali, in a sense, marched through his life fighting in a double ring. True, his opponents in the boxing ring were some of the most elite, tenacious, and powerful athletes of all time.  With grace, speed, and power, Ali conquered the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Leon Spinks.  But, there was another ring that Ali had to conquer, a “cultural ring,” which all oppressed communities, but especially the Black community could identify with. 

The cultural ring presented Ali with equally as formidable opponents.  A poignant and early example of this came when Ali (then Cassius Clay) threw his Olympic gold medal into the depths of the Ohio River after being refused service at a local restaurant in Louisiana.

At just 18 years old, the message was clear.  Though Ali had risen to the pinnacle of athletic achievement as an Olympic champion, he was still, in the cultural ring, a nigger.  His pugilistic prowess was unprecedented, but there were still cultural spaces that Ali could not access because he was Black.  This battle was probably strong enough to break the ordinary individual’s spirit; but Ali, with courage and confidence parried this blow, just as he did in the boxing ring.

And this would not be the only time Ali would lose his regalia due to the cultural ring. In 1967, Ali boldly refused to be inducted into the United States Army.  Again – at the risk of losing his title, which he worked tremendously hard to earn – Ali stood his enemy (this time the American Empire) in the face, and candidly told them that America, not Vietnam was his opponent.  America, not Vietnam, called him a nigger; America, not Vietnam, raped, lynched, and shot down his community.

Now, Ali’s decision to renounce his country and abstain from the Vietnam War feels consistent with what any decent person would do, but at the time, it made Ali a prisoner and pariah.  For someone who loved boxing, people, and life as much as Ali did, the decision to sacrifice his freedom was one of tremendous courage, one that will always remain with me, and in the archives of human greatness. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is easy, but painful, to realize that this courage distinguishes him from the panoply of athletes we have today.  Who among us can we say – and I wish I had a better way of putting it – is about that life? 

When we take time to avert our eyes from what even the greatest contemporary athletes have accomplished within their sport, there is little that compels us to be a better human being, as Ali did.  Sure, Michael Jordan’s business acumen is unrivaled and nothing to sneeze at and we might look and feel better when we step out the house in a crisp pair of Threes.  But Js could save neither Trayvon Martin nor Kimani Gray; neither Eric Garner nor Jordan Davis; neither Michael Brown nor Sandra Bland, all who fell to the force of the brutal cultural ring.

Other sports are not exempt from critique.  Derek Jeter is a legend, and class act, but what about the times when we need to embrace funk and candor, even if it means dispensing with respectability for the moment?  Like when Ali  — in an act of radical self-love — told the world, “I’m the prettiest, I’m the greatest.”  Who is the towering example of self-knowledge and spiritual discipline today: Tiger Woods?  Floyd Mayweather?  Truthfully, I trust Riley Curry to speak up about the Black condition before Steph does. 

Today’s activism looks like LeBron James etching Trayvon Martin’s name on the front of his shoe, or the Clippers turning their jersey’s inside out in response to learning of their racist owner, Donald Sterling.  All this is said, not with the aim of diminishing what these athletes and others have accomplished, but to emphasize just how much Ali stuck his neck out to ensure that he would leave the world in better shape than he inherited it.

It sounds cliché, but I cannot help but to feel that the culture’s values have receded.  The people who go to jail today whom we admire are the ones who refused to tell on their homeboy in the face of being offered reduced terms by the feds.  Ali worked to earn the trust of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, and most of the children today only seek to be trusted by Young Metro.  Nothing against the man – he makes great beats – but, I’m just saying.

If today’s athletes will not rise to the occasion, at least Muhammad Ali has left an everlasting well of humor, courage, wit, strength, beauty, faith, and confidence that can be tapped into, which, if the current election is any indicator of things to come, is a necessity rather than a privilege.  And for this I shall be thankful.  Thank you, Ali, for being strong when we needed strength.  Thank you, Ali, for speaking up when we needed a voice.  Thank you, Ali, for making us laugh when we needed a comic.  Thank you, Ali, for sacrificing when we needed a martyr.  Thank you, Ali, for having courage when we needed a lion.  Thank you, Ali, for being a champion when we needed you to be.

I heard George Foreman say that a piece of him died when Muhammad Ali passed, and it was the best part.  Though the sentiment was sweet, I think we owe Ali the opposite.  That is, we owe it to Ali for a piece of us to come alive.  We owe it to him for a piece of us to awaken.  In both our professional rings: our classrooms, our law firms, our corporate offices, our gyms, our police departments, our fire departments, our hospitals; but, also when we leave these places, and step inside the proverbial cultural ring.  And in that ring, when your opponents surface, ugly and difficult as they may be, I say to you one thing: Be the double greatest.

~Justin Bellamy

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