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Imperfect, but still the greatest

Oelmaier Tobias Kommentarbild App
Tobias Oelmaier
June 4, 2016

Muhammad Ali was much more than just a world champion boxer. He will be sadly missed, and he was so unique it is hard to imagine anybody ever really filling his shoes, writes DW sports editor Tobias Oelmaier.

USA Muhammad Ali Liston Knockout in Maine
Image: Neil Leifer

"The king is dead, long live the king!" they used to say when a monarch passed away and his successor took to the throne. Now, Muhammad Ali, one of the biggest sporting figures of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the biggest and best-looking, has died. So who will follow in his footsteps? Who has even managed to come close over the past three decades?

We're talking about three decades in which he couldn't even really defend himself. Having lost control over his gestures, which had once earned so much respect, his smile, which once radiated charm, and his tongue, which was often both sharp and hurtful. No one managed to come close to him even after Parkinson's disease had long rendered the proud Olympic and world champion a frail main, often pumped full of heavy medication.

Oelmaier Tobias Kommentarbild App

What a twist of fate! For Ali was much more than a successful boxer, more than an Olympic and world champion. Of those, the world of sports has seen many come and go, and many more will follow.

However, Ali was far from perfect. There were tactical mistakes and defeats in the ring, failed marriages, things he said in public that even he may have regretted. In many ways, his was the life of a typical athlete.

But Ali did the unexpected, breaking with conventions. He won back the world heavyweight belt he had lost not once, but twice, rendering absurd the old law of boxing that states that a former champion can never retake the crown. At a time when commentators were predicting his retirement, he rose like a phoenix from the ashes. He took professional sports to a new level, realizing how important the right kind of publicity is. His public provocations prior to big fights were bursting with creativity in the way he put down his opponents in a manner aimed at making the spotlight shine even more brightly on himself.

He was a polarizing figure, who left nothing to chance.

He was snotty, autocratic and arrogant, but by becoming a conscientious objector, he put his entire career on the line. He only escaped being sent to prison by paying a bond. He was part of the black rights movement in the United States and converted to Islam. His boxing matches became like class struggles or proxy wars. It was Ali against the establishment or Ali against the racists. Yet he was neither black nor white. He was the greatest of his time, perhaps of all time. Not only the greatest boxer, but the greatest athlete.

No question: Ali's career deserved a better end. He should have gone out on a high, instead of with a defeat by Trevor Berbick, when he was nearly 40. And his entire life deserved a more gracious end, maybe even a heroic one. But in keeping with the uniqueness of Muhammad Ali, this was not to be. They say that only bad movies have happy endings. And Ali played the lead role in the biggest, the best and the most beautiful.

Ali was Ali was Ali!

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