Reprinted from The Guardian
I am too young to have watched Muhammad Ali fight live in the ring. I was born four years after he retired from boxing -- 10 years after the legendary Rumble in the Jungle. But more than anyone, Ali, who died Friday at 74, is responsible for my love of journalism and the art of political writing and dissent.
Boxing has enraptured writers for almost for almost a century -- Ernest Hemingway and AJ Liebling both wrote eloquently about the sport well before Ali became the most famous person on the planet. But it was Ali who became a singular force for journalists, not only eliciting brilliant writing from some of the best-known writers of the mid-20th century, but forcing them to confront much more than just sports.
I was hooked. I read volumes of material by Thomas Hauser, who chronicled Ali's career in more detail than anyone else, including writing his definitive biography. Hauser, who clearly admired the man, was also not afraid to puncture myths for the sake of truth -- whether it was writing that Ali didn't throw his Olympic gold medal over a bridge in protest (he lost it) or discussing his taunting of Joe Frazier, often portrayed as playful, but which was actually dark and disturbed.
Then there were the dozens of magazine articles, including Mark Kram's gorgeous piece on the third Ali-Frazier fight, "the Thrilla in Manilla," which the longtime Sports Illustrated reporter Richard Deitsch has called "the greatest deadline story" in the magazine's history. Kram's "Lawdy, Lawdy, He's Great" recounts in vivid detail how the two fighters were quite literally on the verge of death after pummeling each other for 14 rounds but refusing to give up. Reading it today, four decades later, will still give you chills.
Ali certainly brought the best out of sportswriters, lifting their prose to new heights. But more than that, he forced them to grapple with the fact that sports are never just that. He taught a generation that political and social events are often intertwined, and they should be confronted head on rather than shunted or ignored. It was Ali who occasioned this reckoning, and it's a lesson even those of us who never saw him fight should never forget.