The Greatest

I was all ready to write a column about the shooting of that gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, as well as about the deplorable conditions of the Wildlife in Need zoo in Southern Indiana. From the irresponsibility and arrogance of humanity as demonstrated by these recent cases, to Sea World’s treatment of orcas, my tolerance for our disrespect for other living creatures had reached its end. It is clear that humans should not keep animals as entertainment. We may dominate the food chain, but we have proven we cannot responsibly and humanely coexist with wild animals.

But then, news broke about the passing of Muhammad Ali.

The mistreatment of animals is an enraging, important issue. We can unwrap that, and I write weekly about other ailments that plague our society, but the death of Ali offers an opportunity to observe and reflect on the best of humanity.

I was with my dad when we heard about Ali’s passing. It was actually at an event with several hundred people in the room, and when the announcement was made, we were asked to observe a moment of silence. I couldn’t help but smile and think: No way the “Champ” would want a silent moment. It occurred to me that it seems as though everyone has an Ali story. Some stories are more personal than others, but unlike any other athlete or world figure, Ali had somehow touched everyone. People may have watched Michael Jordan, or admired the Pope, but they were admired from afar. They were almost supernatural. But not Ali. Ali was superhuman, not supernatural. Ali’s human connection with everyone is what made him unique.

While I knew this week’s column had to be about the “Louisville Lip,” I was wondering what I could possibly contribute that hasn’t been said about the most famous person in the world. But that realization — that Ali’s life was about touching as many people as he could — made it clear that it doesn’t matter if it’s been said before, because we all share the same champion. All of Ali’s stories are our stories. Like one big family, talking and sharing stories about Ali is like telling stories about our father, grandfather or brother.

I never saw an Ali fight live. His last fight was almost two years before I was born. By the time I was 2, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The most astounding affirmation of Ali’s greatness (to me) is that, despite being separated by two generations, his life and impact still resonate. How can a black, converted Muslim boxer, born in the poor side of Louisville in the ‘40s be a hero to a white, half-Jewish, half-Catholic golfer from the other side of town half a century later? A real-life superhero. Ali’s superpower was the ability to walk through barriers that divided races and religions, and leap across boundaries separating generations.

Here is my story.

There my mom and I were — nearly 30 years ago — in an airport terminal, a 3- (or 4-) year-old, face-to-face with the former champion of the world. The “Champ” sized me up pretty quickly, and told me to hand over that McDonald’s cheeseburger. I tucked the cheeseburger behind my back, and I continued to chew away at the prize. Ali put his hands up, ready to fight for it. I said, “Not today chump,” and knocked him out with an overhand right. [I probably just hit him, and then ran behind my mother … but that’s how I remember the encounter.] My dad, who was returning the car, had to listen to my mom’s retelling of the fight, now known as the “Melee in Terminal A.”

With just that moment, he gave me the memory of a lifetime. I wouldn’t have thought any less of him if he just walked by. He still would have been my hometown hero. But the extraordinary, superhero that he was, he stopped, and he connected with a child, and it was a connection I feel even today.

So in honor of our “Champ,” who said, “Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you’re going to be right.”

You shook up boxing, and you shook up politics. You shook up the media, while laughing at all your critics.

In the blink of an eye, with the punches you hurled, rumble, you did young man … you shook up the world.