Rozner: No words grand enough to honor Ali

  • FILE - This is a 1995 file photo showing Muhammad Ali smiling during a visit to New York. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74.

    FILE - This is a 1995 file photo showing Muhammad Ali smiling during a visit to New York. Ali, the magnificent heavyweight champion whose fast fists and irrepressible personality transcended sports and captivated the world, has died according to a statement released by his family Friday, June 3, 2016. He was 74.

Updated 6/4/2016 6:34 PM

Sometimes -- actually, very few times -- the words are not large enough, the bold, black print too small a contrast against the stark, white page.

The man is too big, the meaning beyond grasp, the sentiment out of reach.


So while the tributes poured in Saturday morning from every corner of the world -- from every race and religion, from presidents past and current, from the greatest athletes of all time -- the words fell hauntingly short.

The praise for Muhammad Ali was heartfelt no doubt, but it all tasted like a single bite of steak when 32 ounces could not have filled the void.

This is what happens when a man is not just larger than life, but large enough to cover the globe.

Muhammad Ali died Friday night in Arizona at the age of 74, leaving behind hundreds of millions of fans who worshipped him, remembering the courageous pioneer as much as the brilliant boxer.

The words were as pretty as a 22-year-old Ali, when he first took the title from Sonny Liston in an enormous upset, and they are as powerful as Ali was when he took back his title from George Foreman in 1974 at the age of 32, in an equally stunning surprise.

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But it is not enough. It is not nearly enough.

The truth is there can be no appropriate obituary. They are all just words. Muhammad Ali was that big, covered that much ground and was that important to American culture.

He was the Babe Ruth of his time, only with the guts to stand up and the need to change hearts, minds and American foreign policy. Ali was Michael Jordan before he was Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods before he was Tiger Woods, but with a conscience and a purpose far beyond the playing fields.

He is the reason Jordan and Woods were able to become Jordan and Woods.

Ali was the most popular athlete and the most recognizable man in the world when he was in his prime, and he remained so the night he died.

He truly was "The Greatest."

There is no reasonable place to start or finish, but his fight against institutional American racism was what mattered more than anything else, leading to a victory against a corrupt United States government and a bloodied industrial military complex.


One young black man standing up with one raised fist, shouting that he would not fight for America, when America would not fight for him.

My goodness, what an incredible human.

And when he wouldn't accept his draft status, the government took from him the best years of his boxing life, stripped him of his title, cost him millions of dollars, and threatened him with jail.

Still, betrayed and ravaged by his own country, Ali stood on principle.

"Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?" Ali asked in 1967. "No, I'm not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.

"This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here.

"I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.

"If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn't have to draft me. I'd join tomorrow.

"I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs, so I'll go to jail. So what? We've been in jail for 400 years."

That was the essence, and the absurd circumference, of Ali.

There was inevitability to Jackie Robinson. If it had not been him, there would have been Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Ernie Banks.

Presidents come and go. Champions live and die. Even Neil Armstrong wasn't the only man who walked on the moon.

There was only one athlete who tried to change the world.

Ali did not fill a role that was meant to be filled. He created the stage, jumped from the crowd onto it, and then danced to his own beat, all while America threw bricks and bullets, and threatened to lynch a black man for being loud and smart and pretty and opinionated.

And for being right.

He stood for all people, and he won.

Yes, he was a brilliant boxer and an incredible entertainer, and of course he won the title three times, all three times against the odds and in the face of adversity created by outside forces trying to deny him what was rightly his.

But he never lost his sense of humor or his sense of humanity, and a reasonable person has to wonder how that was possible.

In his book, "The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life's Journey," Ali said he would like to be thought of "as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right.

"As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love.

"And if all that's too much, then I guess I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was."

It's not enough. There's no part of remembering Muhammad Ali that is enough. It's not big enough, grand enough or great enough.

On this sad day, perhaps just understanding that will have to be enough.

• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.

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