Muhammad Ali’s final gift to America was to serve as a living warning against the brutal sport that made him famous. The legendary boxing champion died Friday at 74, after decades of suffering from the damage from his fighting career. It’s probably no coincidence that his long, highly visible struggle paralleled the decline of boxing as a major sport in America, and the growing awareness of brain injuries in all sports. It might be said that boxing picked a fight with Ali — and, no surprise, it lost.
It’s hard to imagine now, but just a few decades ago boxing was prime time entertainment. After Ali emerged as a star at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The primal spectacle of men battling in the ring thrilled sportswriters, who celebrated their prowess with little thought given to the awful long-term impact on the fighters.
Ali thrived in that world. He became heavyweight champion by knocking out Sonny Liston (who himself would go on to die young). The sport gave him a platform to become a beloved cultural symbol of black pride and opposition to the Vietnam War. With his trash-talking persona, he embraced the spotlight boxing afforded him, and became a larger-than-life figure.
Yet Ali was always aware of the cruelty built into the fight game, and the unspoken racism inherent in a sport that very often pitted two black fighters against each other before a white audience. As he described in 1970, the fighter’s job was to “beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white.”
After his retirement in 1981, the toll of at work became tragically clear. Ali suffered from Parkinson’s and rarely appeared in public. When he feebly lit the torch at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the whole world gasped at how frail Ali had become. Even by then, boxing was receding from public consciousness. Seeing what it did to Ali surely hastened its fall; it’s hard to separate boxing from the fate of its all-time greatest champion.
Today, Americans have a far greater understanding of how sports — not just boxing, but football, soccer, and hockey — can damage brains and bodies. Violence as entertainment faces scrutiny like never before. In no small part, that is Ali’s last legacy, a sacrifice he made for all athletes. It was an awful price for a man to pay.