Muhammad Ali left a vacancy that no one can fill

The day Muhammad Ali died in the summer of 2016 was a beautiful and sunny day much like the personality that shone from the man himself. After hearing the news I continued on with my day in a haze of disbelief thinking that it wasn’t true even though his departure was not so unexpected.

Anyone who cared was aware of his ailment and so the world knew that he had Alzheimer’s disease.

I walked over to the neighbourhood café to write as I frequently did that summer. That day the words wouldn’t come. I could only think about Ali. 

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.” — Muhammad Ali.

Feeling lost, I sat in the window facing the doorway where I was prominently on display. Streams of tears rolled down my face. It felt like there was now a vacancy in the world that no one would be able to fill or even explain in a hundred lifetimes. It felt like hope was lost. No one passing by me, even the woman who smiled at me with understanding, could grasp the significance of the moment.

He seemed like a real life superhero who would stand up for the rights of Black people in the African diaspora, African Americans, people of colour and anyone who was lacking privilege in society at large. Ali influenced nations by speaking the truth.

No matter how hotly contested his views were, people from all walks of life would listen. And at the end of the diatribe or praise the walls of the opposition would fall away leaving room for conversation.

Lee Remnick of the New Yorker magazine reminds us that Ali was loved but also vilified, and that he was a separatist but also an integrationist at the same time. But he gave the most gracious of compliments to Ali that I’ve ever heard or read. Of course I couldn’t bring myself to read or watch news stories about Ali since that day. I even missed former US President Barack Obama’s speech about Ali.

Remnick said Ali “was the most fantastical American figure of his era, a self-invented character of such physical wit, political defiance, global fame, and sheer originality that no novelist you might name would dare conceive him.”

An enigmatic figure in world culture, the three-time heavyweight champion boxer born Cassius Clay but refused to be called that name as he said it was his slave name, had millions of fans around the world and inspired millions more with his views of equality and social justice.

Ali protested against being drafted to fight a war in Vietnam that he did not agree with. He also originally declined to participate in the opening ceremony of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996. There are many stories to tell about Ali.

His life story is unique and full of surprises, complex and difficult to tell. But if anyone could do it justice, it would be filmmaker Ken Burns. 

“Ali was an artist,” Burns said.

The documentary, simply called Muhammad Ali by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon explores the boxer’s life from his childhood in then segregated Louisville, Kentucky through his boxing career to his death from Parkinson’s disease just five years ago.

“Ali was an artist,” Burns said. “As a boxer, he transformed the sport with his speed and grace, as a man he challenged us to think about the world differently and proudly spoke about the power of love. He early on recognized that he could use his platform to speak for those discriminated against and at home and abroad, and refused to tolerate racism directed at him or others.”

The story about one of the world’s greatest athletes is an eight-hour film split into four episodes. The documentary took seven years to complete and features interviews with Ali’s close friends, family, experts and cultural figureheads. The directors chose from over 15,000 images and explosive footage that even Ali’s daughter Rasheda had not seen before. 

Muhammad Ali premieres nationally on the American television network PBS and regionally on PBS SoCal in Southern California on Sun., Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. PT/7 central. KCET will host a marathon of all four episodes back-to-back on Saturday, September 25 starting at 2:30 p.m. PT. The series will also stream on and the PBS Video App. Watch the trailer.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird

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