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Saturday Sports: Remembering Muhammad Ali


The world is mourning the loss of Muhammad Ali today. He won three heavyweight boxing championships and turned boxing into both a kind of art form and a platform for social issues. Many consider Ali to be the creator of the modern athlete, including our Howard Bryant of and ESPN The Magazine. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: And how did he change the nature of the modern athlete, do you think?

BRYANT: Well, I think that when you think of Muhammad Ali, especially coming away from the 1950s with Jackie Robinson where the doors of immigration were open, the modern athlete was expected to be quiet, was expected to be grateful, to be happy to be there. And in a lot of ways, Muhammad Ali was a one-man labor movement.

He sent the message to the world that the athlete was the commodity, that he was not grateful, that you were grateful for his talent and that his talent was the reason why we watched and that he was going to be his own person, politically, religiously, socially, especially during those years when you were not expected to speak as a black athlete.

SIMON: Yeah. Of course, we must remind ourselves he was not like Mahatma Gandhi with boxing gloves. He was an astonishingly gifted prizefighter. Can - what made him so different and dazzling when he came into this business?

BRYANT: Well, it's one - it's really interesting. When you think about someone like LeBron James, for example, I believe LeBron James is the most unique basketball player ever to play the game. Muhammad Ali was very similar to that.

Six-foot-three, 200-pound heavyweight, who had the speed of a lightweight but the power of a heavyweight, and the quickness and the size. He had everything that a world-class athlete would need. Usually at a heavyweight position, you lacked speed, size - I'm sorry, or movement. You had the size, but you lacked the speed. He had...

SIMON: You had to give something up in the division, yeah.

BRYANT: Exactly. He had everything.

SIMON: And you've been around the world in so many different places where the name Ali is uttered as a kind of - almost as a kind of prayer. What do - how - why do you think he was such a powerful image to so many people?

BRYANT: Well, I think the American story is not just one story. And I think when I really think about professional athletes, you have to remember that this is a man who was one of the most hated athletes in the world, especially in the United States, because he did something that we really don't seem to want very much today, which is to question government, which is to question power, which is to use your conscience for what you think is right in the world.

He stood up. He spoke for poor people. He spoke for himself. He - the entire American government went after him. And he stood and was willing to risk his career. He was willing to risk everything. And that connected to so many people, and especially after three and a half years losing his title, speaking on college campuses. And 30 years later, he ended up being on the right side of history, and the world recognized that he was a humanitarian.

SIMON: At the same time, I have to ask about the brutality that made him famous. Did boxing both make Muhammad Ali rich, famous and revered and wind up taking his life too?

BRYANT: Well, absolutely. Well, I'm not a doctor. I don't know exactly what caused Parkinson's for him when he was diagnosed in the late '80s. But obviously people talk about the effect of boxing and repeated punishment. We talk about this in all kinds of sports. And I feel that the Muhammad Ali story, in many ways, brought boxing to its famous - most famous heights, but also, in a lot of ways, brought it down after seeing the punishment that he took.

It's - he's a towering figure. There's not enough time to talk about everything about him. I have to say, though, I am most grateful that I actually got to see some of it. And I think that over the course of these last few months, losing Prince and Muhammad Ali as well, we got to be a part of it and to have seen some of it firsthand. And it's a very, very special thing.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, thanks so much.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.