Muhammad Ali is the greatest athlete of all time. ESPN’s panel of experts in their SportsCentury countdown did not think so, but they also put a horse ahead of Mickey Mantle. Despite ESPN’s claim that the poll was based wholly on athletic ability, it most certainly was not. Evidence for this lies in many places, one being Jackie Robinson’s placement at number 16 on the list.
Though Robinson most certainly was one of the most gifted athletes of the century (he could have played as many as three sports professionally), the sport he ultimately forged a career in was baseball. Again, he was a very gifted player, but no one puts him in a list of the top 20 baseball players of all time.
His legacy was the impact he made by playing major league baseball at all in his time. Adding the idea of the athlete’s social fingerprint on our culture means Jackie Robinson is rightly very high on the list.
The reason we add this to the selection process is simple: sheer athletic ability is very hard to quantify. People widely disagree on the traits evident in a skilled athlete. Different sports require different talents that all make up athletic ability. Comparing these talents will only result in certain sports, such as baseball, getting an unfair shake.
At its most basic level, baseball takes into account hand-eye coordination more than anything else. Hitting a baseball is probably the hardest necessary skill of any sport, but many who can do that successfully also have a hard time running around the bases without wheezing.
However, if you take into account the athlete’s character, how he used his mind and celebrity off the field of play, then you get a more accurate representation of what our greatest athlete should: a hero.
Yet, for the people who dislike Ali, a group whose numbers have diminished in recent years, his impact remains just as great. He made these people analyze why they think what they think.
Ali changed the way we look at athletes. He did not allow himself to be defined by the media. His legend wasn’t created because America needed a hero (like Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak) instead, he created his own image. He was pretty when he boxed, and he let people know it. He wasn’t a Christian, nor did he want to be called by his Christian name. The people who did were punished in the ring like Ernie Terrell, or harassed outside it like Howard Cosell.
With Ali, there was no contradiction between his athletic and social persona. He refuted all notions of what a boxer should be, and then took on all the energy and vigor of the political climate of the 1960s. Ali did not fit easily into any mold that the media or the general public could assign him.
It is a hard task to define exactly the impact Ali had outside the ring. It is not hard to define his impact on his sport: he completely revolutionized the way heavyweight boxers were perceived. He was large man who could dance in the ring like a featherweight (if you ask him now, he’ll tell you he still can). Ali mentally dominated opponents, and possessed an extraordinary sense of the moment both in and out of the ring.
Having said that athletes cannot be measured with only regard for their physical prowess, it is not contradictory to take into account the power and historical significance attached to the sport of boxing.
Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers’ minister of information, captures this phenomenon perfectly in an essay titled “Lazarus, Come Forth.” “The boxing ring is the ultimate focus of masculinity in America, the two-fisted testing ground of manhood, and the heavyweight champion, as a symbol, is the real Mr. America,” Cleaver said.
Ali fundamentally changed his sport. “Big deal,” you say; so did every top athlete from Wayne Gretzky to Jim Brown to Babe Ruth to Michael Jordan. Ali broke barriers and refused to let the prevailing social or religious constraints of his day dictate his life. Jackie Robinson, Jack Johnson and Sandy Koufax also could be cast in this light. For many years, Ali’s was the most recognizable face worldwide next to Jesus Christ’s, he is the arguably the best fighter who ever lived and he epitomizes for an entire generation ideals of racial pride, freedom of religion, political discourse and athletic superiority. No one but Muhammad Ali can answer that bell.