Eulogizing a man is never easy. Properly eulogizing a great man is impossible. Myth softens reality. That's what great men deserve.
I tend to bridle when the media discusses Ali. They like to tell us what Ali meant, which is often a way of telling us about themselves. Of course, Ali can't be properly remembered without discussing his turbulent times or his role in them. He was a brave athlete standing uncompromisingly against racial oppression. The principled opponent of war willing to sacrifice four years in the prime of his career to stand up for his beliefs. The symbol of hope and defiance in the face of systemic discrimination and the champion of underdogs the world over. A man who stood up against The Establishment and won, honor intact.
He did all of that. But the reasons were complex and not always so tidy. So we blur them - omit, edit, tastefully drape the shroud.
Before his official departure in 1975, Ali spent much of his boxing career as a member of a cult led by a megalomaniac. The NOI was an explicable abnormality, formed by and in defiant opposition to the country's systemic racial discrimination, but the lines between Ali's personal convictions and Elijah Muhammad's marching orders could be blurry. Ali suffered for his beliefs, and in so doing, revealed his character, but the whys and whats of his defiance weren't always as appealing as the great champion himself. This was all made more complex by the fact that Ali, whatever the heated rhetoric of the time, loved people in general and had close friendships with men of all stripes.
The character of the man is more interesting than the symbol. His wit and charisma; the effusive easy charm, the brash beauty of his violent artistry, belied the fact that Ali knew things about himself that most men can only guess at. He possessed a knowledge that came from battling through a blinding, liniment soaked thumb in the eye from the terrifying Sonny Liston, from pissing out bloody pieces of kidney weeks after fighting Joe Frazier, from winning a decision over Ken Norton with a shattered jaw, from improbably upsetting George Foreman in Zaire when all serious boxing analysts knew that he would be utterly destroyed.
Boxing is cruel. It's deeply corrupt. It may even be wrong. It can also be a tool for ruthless self-discovery and self-actualization. Boxing wasn't Ali's platform to affect society. It formed him.
Muhammad Ali journeyed to deep waters. His mental strength was an immovable anchor against the vicious current of the fight's physical, emotional and spiritual brutality. Ali drank brine and found molecules of oxygen, buoyed by some impossible integrity, while so many of his opponents - also skilled, strong, committed - floundered and drowned.
It wasn't mere gameness. It was character.
Many of his skills in the ring were without peer, even though we were deprived of Ali at his peak. He had a jab so educated it deserved a doctorate, striking like a viper's kiss from a contortionist's angles; disguising a swift right hand that proved precision is power. He possessed the fluidity of a welterweight in a heavyweight's body. He was tactically brilliant and a resourceful improviser.
Grace and elegant geometry obfuscated a more terrifying truth: Ali was willing to die for his craft. He was a true martial artist. We know now the cost of that commitment. We cringe at the idea of dying for something as pointless as a prize fight, but what are any of us dying for? What does the fight represent? Contemplating that is humbling.
Muhammad Ali mastered fear and thus mastered himself. His psychological mastery: the taunting, teasing, cajoling, threatening and clowning, turned mirrors on damaged men - because all men are damaged, and boxers are the most. He made them reckon with their own character because he was secure in his own. Society was forced to look into Ali's polished surface and consider its own grotesqueries. An opponent couldn't hope to master Ali without first mastering themselves.
And if they were willing to go with him to the deep waters, he'd show them who they were.