The Loss of a Mythical Figure
It doesn’t often rain in Colorado, but when it does, it sure can come down in buckets. Today is precisely one of those days. The rain is pouring down relentlessly, and the dog is nestled up at my feet as I drink coffee and stare out into the gloomy, eerie silence. Seems like the perfect day to write about the passing of a legend.
Is it me, or has this been a far too frequent occurrence as of late? As I wrote about in my column on the passing of David Bowie, some of this is surely attributable to my generation coming to an age where the people we idolized as children are themselves reaching their later years and thus subsequently dying on us. But it sure does seem to have taken a precocious turn this past year. Bowie, Prince, and now Muhammad Ali: I’m not sure what’s going on out there in the universe, but I sure do wish it would stop. Or at least if it has to take a cultural icon, why couldn’t it take Kanye West? You know, somebody who thinks he’s the greatest of all time but really isn’t.
Part of me didn’t even want to write a column on Ali; it just felt like I would be dwelling too much on the topic of death, sort of like a goth kid at open poetry mic night in a dark coffee shop in Seattle. Still, I felt compelled to write about Ali because his passing resonated for me with the realization of something larger passing with him. To me, he was more than just a sports hero; he was a mythical figure the likes of which we are unlikely to see again given the way our society currently functions. That, it seemed, was worth writing about.
Most of Ali’s most memorable moments in the boxing ring took place before I was born or at least before I can much remember. By the time I recall first seeing Ali, he was already an icon, his legendary status cemented for generations to come. His presence was larger than life, and though he walked the same earth I did, it seemed to my young imagination that he was elevated amongst the mortals, as if he were a man that transcended time and place with the greatness of his being. He echoed with an importance that I could barely fathom but knew enough to respect. God, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali: the holy trinity of really important beings.
And in those formative years of my life, I had seen little of him fighting; I knew him more by his famous sayings like “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee”, or “I’m the greatest of all time.” I’m not sure why, but I believed him. My dad would tell me about his greatest triumphs like “The Rumble in the Jungle” or “The Thrilla in Manilla”, but it was when he appeared on Scooby Doo that I knew this was more legend than man.
Only in my later years, long after his boxing career had ended in a tragic fall from grace, upended by the cruel hands of time and lost youth, did I recognize the true importance he held. It was then that I learned of how instrumental he had been in the civil rights movement and his courageous willingness to stand up for what he knew was right by refusing to go fight in a war he conscientiously objected to. Disappointed in the personal life of so many of the heroes that made up my younger years, Ali was one of the few men I admired even more as the years prevailed and I came to know more about them. For Ali was as much hero out of the ring as he was in it.
In subsequent years, when I would watch documentaries on his career, he he was one sports figure that became larger and more monumental as time went on. And this is where I think we shall not see his like ever again. There will be greater athletes who achieve equal notoriety and accomplish feats of athletic prowess that supersede Ali’s, and there will be other heros who make personal sacrifices to push our society forward, but none will shadow triumphantly over the world, and a child’s imagination, quite the way Ali did.
In today’s world, we know everything instantaneously. Every moment is scrutinized and analyzed to a paralyzing death. There is no room for mythical heros in the modern environment of professional sports. Even an athlete with a personality that is larger than life is brought back down into perspective by a hyper-vigilant media that details every waking moment of an athlete’s existence. There are no more cracks of the unknown in which the seeds of a child’s imagination can germinate into the creation of a mythical Greek-like hero. Sometimes the more we know is not quite for the better.
So rest in peace, Muhammad Ali. You were the last of the great kings. And if I know the Greeks, you will be a constellation pressed against the evening sky for all the world to see.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every TUESDAY and FRIDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com