Muhammad Ali is from Louisville and I am not. This is not the only difference between us.
Ali had great hair, and I do not. Ali was a terrifyingly good athlete, and I was not. Ali had an incredible, inimitable way of speaking. I mumble and stumble. If I was honest about my heroes, I would probably be better served looking up to Bob Newhart.
But I'm not, and – with all respect to Bob – he's not. And Muhammad Ali is dead, passed away Friday night at the age of 74.
I'm young and, though I'd like to say that I knew who Muhammad Ali was before the Atlanta Olympics I'm not sure if that's the case. I remember being nine years old and seeing Ali light the Olympic Torch and mostly realizing this was a big moment because all these older folks were telling me that it was a big moment. I filed it away; "Muhammad Ali --> important. Olympics --> kind of weird. Fire --> a-okay with me." I'm sorry I don't have a better story for you.
A decade later, Muhammad Ali functioned as a sort of gateway drug for me. By this time I had filled in a bit more of his biography. Born Cassius Clay, began boxing after someone stole his bicycle, had an Olympic gold taken away, so on and so forth. I also discovered that he was a real radical dude. He chose jail over the Vietnam War. He palled around with Malcolm X. He went to Egypt. He gave crap to ur-bombastic sportsfigure Howard Cosell. Muhammad Ali said and did stuff that I didn't know was okay and probably wasn't okay but it was very clear that the generation before me saw him as okay. So I learned more about him.
Last year, I talked with Sohail Daulatzai about Black Star, Crescent Moon, Daulatzai's novel about the Black radical imagination. I realized that my understanding of Ali was, if not wrong, at least wildly inaccurate. That growing up where I did, how I did, and thinking I understood Muhammad Ali was like looking through a door's peephole and out onto the Rocky Mountains.
Muhammad Ali was truly radical, a revolutionary who used his talents to give a great big "nah" to the world order. His constant shimmying between truth-telling and story-weaving, between bridge-burning and spotlight-stealing allowed him to get away with informing a new way to think. Black athletes didn't have to mumble pleasantries at white audiences in Ali's world. Heck, Black people didn't have to keep their heads down in Ali's world. In short, this freaking happened:
I'm not part of that story, the one Daulatzai told about not just anti-racist action but surly, strategic, anti-imperial action. I only learned about it recently, but, holy heck, that was the dude who lit the torch in 1996?
I wonder if Ali thought that was all in the cards when he was a boy in Louisville. There are several biographies that meditate on this question, none of which I think do a terribly good job of it. But however the story's written, it's clear that young Cassius Clay had a high opinion of himself and what he was able to do — and was the rare precocious kid who happened to actually be correct.
Muhammad Ali changed the world, and he changed it so dramatically that the people he terrified in his twenties had no choice but to have one billion people salute him in his fifties. That's some Daenerys Targaryen stuff. The best those terrified people could do was to convince the next generation that Muhammad Ali was just an extremely athletic Louisvillain. He was, yeah, that and more.
Muhammad Ali is from Kentucky. He went on to conquer the world, its hearts, and its minds. We can't begin to comprehend that as a sports site. All we can say is that Muhammad Ali is from Kentucky. He was ours (and everybody else's).