music friday: the 1980s music challenge
the greatest


More than once, I’ve told stories about the year we lived on Telegraph Avenue. We’re talking 1974-75, and ... well, I wrote about it more than ten years ago, check out “Telegraph Avenue Anecdotes”.

On that post, I wrote:

There was other stuff that happened ... the night Ali beat Foreman, people celebrated in the street, and when Saigon fell/was liberated in '75, two different parades started up, one coming down Telegraph towards campus, the other coming downhill on Haste, and when the two parades, who couldn't see each other as we could from our window, met up at the corner of Telegraph and Haste, there was great fanfare.

In 2005, some 30 years after the fact, I seem to have my memories straight. But another decade has clouded my brain. When I heard that Muhammad Ali was on life support, I thought back on his importance, and remembered a Telegraph Avenue anecdote. But I remembered it wrong, confusing the two events mentioned above. So my most recent memory was that when Ali beat Foreman, two parades started up, and when they met, there was great fanfare.

I think there’s a reason why I combined the two memories into one. In 1975, the marchers were chanting “Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!” It was a clear marker of a crucial moment in world history. In 1974, the revelers were shouting “Ali! Ali! Ali!” In its own way, that night was a crucial moment, as well. For Muhammad Ali transcended his sport.

I don’t know of a single person from the world of sports who was as important in the world outside of sports as was Muhammad Ali. This is why the phrase “Greatest Of All Time” should probably just be retired, because there is only one Greatest. The closest thing I can think of to Ali is Martina Navratilova, but whatever her impact on tennis, even a great like Martina takes a back seat to Ali.

I used to follow boxing. There is something about a big championship bout that entices and thrills. But then Ali got Parkinson’s. And as far as I know, no connection has ever been proven between Ali’s boxing career and the later development of Parkinson’s. But the damage was done, whether I can pinpoint a correlation or not. The three fights with Joe Frazier were enough on their own to destroy a man. The fights at the end of Ali’s career, when he could no longer float like a butterfly, put finished to what the Frazier fights had started.

I have great respect for the way Muhammad Ali kept on as his disease worsened. But whenever I saw him, and thought about the brilliant light of his early years, I knew I could no longer praise boxing.