The greatest?

Was he greater than Aristotle the Stagyrite, greater than Saint Thomas Aquinas? Greater than Homer or Dante or Shakespeare?

No, but he was greater than Sonny Liston and George Foreman and Joe Frazier and, though I hate to admit this, greater even than George Chuvalo. Though Chuvalo went fifteen rounds with him, twice, and that ought to count for something. Chuvalo also decked four class heavyweight boxers on a single night (26 April 1956), each within four rounds; and would have been at least the British Empire champ had that cissy, Henry Cooper, ever agreed to fight him.

But Chuvalo (“Boom-boom Čuvalo” to you Toronto Croatians) ain’t dead yet, and Muhammad Ali is. He was the diamond in the golden age of boxing; he was (and I quote him as the primary authority), “the double greatest, … the boldest, the prettiest, the most superior, most scientific, most skilfullest fighter in the ring.” …

“I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning, I thrown thunder in jail.”

He calculated that he had taken 29,000 punches in the ring (maybe less than Chuvalo), and it is said against boxing that this isn’t healthy. Boxers often die young, and before that, punch-drunkenness may become a permanent condition. Is this worth it for a game? For a few unforgettable moments? … Yes.

I ha’ seen them mid the clouds on the heather.
Lo! they pause not for love nor for sorrow,
Yet their eyes are as the eyes of a maid to her lover,
When the white hart breaks his cover
And the white wind breaks the morn.

Another fighter (Ezra Pound) glossed these tropes: “’Tis the white stag, Fame, we’re a-hunting. Bid the world’s hounds come to horn!”

Boxing, as stag-hunting, is a gracious sport. “A lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” (Again, I am quoting Ali.) It has been in the Olympics since 688 BC; and man-to-man combat was known before that. Men can understand it, if they are men, and some women, too: this match in which draws should never happen. And there are rules — there have always been rules. And the man who breaks them is a cad, a worm, beneath human dignity.

Muhammad Ali never broke the rules.

The modern ironist will be quick to add, “He never had to.” (The modern ironist is a cad, a worm.)

Ali was a gentleman, and a fair man. I remember his remark when he was busted for refusing the draft, back about 1970: “They did what they thought was right. I did what I thought was right.” And in the end, they had not the guts to gaol him.

He was an inspiration to the black race, but only because he was an inspiration to the human race.

And of course, he was the poet, of so many fine and memorable couplets:

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee — his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”