This blog does not concern itself much with boxing, of course. That sport has long since had its day, and while there's probably something to be said for the relative kindness of that sport towards its practitioners, as opposed to the human cockfight UFC stuff, it's not as if I regret the current crop of NFL tight ends and NBA power forwards, which is to say where the great heavyweight champions have gone.
It's also very, very true that boxing works best in the memory, rather than the reality. The reality is that you are lucky to see one good fight a year, and that the reason why people still love the old fighters is that there hasn't really been as nearly as good of a fight since. While other sports have advanced and exploded with advanced training, better diets, and (of course) drug use, boxing is still about styles making fights; if the combatants are not suited, it's going to look like a train wreck. Ali's, of course, rarely did, and never did in the memory. That's the reason why the cognoscenti went for him.
The public, of course, was buying something entirely different. And it's amazing to me how many people claim to love him now, as opposed to how many people well and truly hated him then. When I was a child, growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, I didn't know a single person that rooted for Ali. Maybe that was part of the regional affection for Joe Frazier, but most of it was just people responding to Ali's heel wrestler schtick, which seems almost comical today that people well and truly bought into it.
The greatest of all time turned 70 years old today, having outlived Joe Frazier, bobbed and weaved past Parkinson's (to date), and floated out of the public eye through the careful massage from his handlers and his adoring media. The world has changed more in his lifetime than seems possible. There is no wartime draft to avoid to demonize him in the eyes of more than half of America. There is an appreciation of showmanship that's borderline unhealthy. His sport lies in perhaps irreparable disrepair, and might never recover a tenth of its former luster.
But when you watch him work the room, or an entire nation in "When We Were Kings"... it's all real, live, current and forever.
No matter what you feel about him, you will give me this: there will never be another like him.
And really, is there a better compliment that you can give to a man?