It is an awkward exercise to eulogize a character who dwarfed sports and life in the manner of Muhammad Ali. Awkward and particularly painful, because we have spoken of Ali the athlete, social activist and cultural phenomenon in the past tense for decades, even as he quietly went about the business of making the planet he was called to serve a superior place.

This was the longest of goodbyes. One of the cruelest ironies in my lifetime is that the “Louisville Lip,” the man known for tearing opponents to shreds and tickling reporters’ ribs with the deft turn of a phrase, was silenced by Parkinson’s disease, presumably exacerbated by the dazzling but dangerous manner in which he made his living.

Easy to be sad for Ali, his family and his true friends and mourn all that we can safely imagine they missed as the world’s predominant physical, psychological and social counterpuncher became a prisoner in his own body. Living in the most self-absorbed of times, however, I would be remiss if I failed to lament what we lost in the second half of the champ’s life.

We, meaning those of us who love sports for the way in which it still gives lives joy, structure and enrichment, and for the agent of change we know it still can be in an oft-brutal world. It is hard for anyone who never lived without hand-held devices to fully grasp that Ali ascended to immortality in different times. Boxing’s heavyweight champion in that era, regardless of his race, creed or prior station in life, was a more influential, powerful character than the MVPs of baseball, football, basketball and hockey put together.

Well, maybe the times weren’t that different. Imagine one of those individual stars of today stepping up to the mic — I mean, keypad — then announcing his conversion to Islam and insisting that we call him by a new name. Oh, and imagine that the United States of America were at war (a real stretch, I know, eye-roll) and that same individual proclaimed he would not participate in the fight due to his religious convictions. The internet would implode.

If you think you understand the concept of racial tension but did not live through the 1960s, rest assured that you probably have no idea how much those words weigh. The past half-century has been such a roller-coaster of foolishness that today, every day, certain white, middle-class, Christians laughably tell anyone who will listen that they are victims of discrimination. Oh, please.

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Ali knew discrimination at every turn, and contrary to his smooth, unapologetic bluster before every fight, he knew fear. Thanks to our commemorative projects for Sun Media in 2005 and 2015, I became a student of Ali’s May 1965 title defense against Sonny Liston. The reasons for that fight moving abruptly three hours north from Boston to a hockey arena in Lewiston are supposedly shrouded in mystery. Nonsense. That event switched venues because authorities in the commonwealth knew the former Cassius Clay was a target and they didn’t want his blood on their hands. Period, exclamation point, end of story. Should you believe a different version of that story, you have a greater imagination than I.

It is a tribute to Ali’s stature and sway that he embraced a faith most of us didn’t understand, took a subsequent stance most of us found unpatriotic, yet still held the most coveted title on the planet three different times and evolved into the most beloved, powerful character on that tiny, speckled marble. Ali didn’t merely dine with presidents, sit with prime ministers and shake the hands of dictators. He towered over them, each one. That phenomenon defies logic because Ali, the man, is unique in human history.

By modern standards, he is (sorry, I’ll continue to speak of him in the present tense) also one-of-a-kind in professional sports. Most of today’s athletic heroes have the social and intellectual courage of gnats. The potential loss from the tip of their obscene bank accounts is too great to even consider a behavioral stance that is even remotely controversial.

Think about it. When is the last time Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, Mike Trout, Jimmie Johnson, David Ortiz or Your Favorite Famous Athlete’s Name Here took a stand against anything that exceeded the use of a T-shirt or a hashtag? (Sorry, Curt Schilling doesn’t count.) It hasn’t happened and it will never happen. They have too much to lose, and they know it. By normal, human standards, I can’t blame them. In the incomparable shadow of Ali, their failure to rock even the smallest of boats is downright gutless.

Whether you accepted Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali or respected his subsequent stance against military service, you had to acknowledge that neither choice was beneficial to his bottom line. It was a reflection of what was in his heart and soul, and he wasn’t afraid to accept the earthly consequences of it. He was willing to gamble the most prolific period of his life and career on it.

There is a lesson there for everyone, regardless of our skin tone; whether we identify as Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or atheist; if our party line trends Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or unabashedly unaffiliated.

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Fight in peace, Champ.

Kalle Oakes is a 27-year veteran of the Sun Journal sports department who retired from the ranks in April. His writing and research anchored “The Phantom Punch at 50,” an Ali-Liston retrospective that won first-place national honors from the Associated Press Sports Editors. He now lives and works in Ali’s home state of Kentucky. He may be reached by email at [email protected]

Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

Muhammad Ali, boxing champion and worldwide icon, dies at 74: Ali suffered for years from Parkinson’s disease, which ravaged his body but could never dim his larger-than-life presence.

Ali’s athletic greatness was jus a platform for the larger man: Many will say, accurately, that no athlete since Ali has remotely approached his fame, or force, on the world stage.

Muhammad Ali’s boxing career: A data visualization and timeline of the boxing career of Muhammad Ali.

Photos: Muhammad Ali “I am the greatest”: 1942-2016: Muhammad Ali was a national icon in and out of the boxing ring.

The Phantom Punch at 50: The rematch between Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali only lasted two minutes. But the impact of the Phantom Punch has lasted more than 50 years.


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