The Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam were the two narratives which shaped the United States in the late twentieth century. Muhammad Ali was an important figure in both stories. They were angry times. Those who participated in the arguments that they gave rise to could hardly fail to offend many of those who differed from them. Ali was no exception, he like William F. Buckley, offended many of his fellow Americans.
Just as Buckley fascinated even his most bitter opponents in The United States by his use of language, so Ali thrilled the world and Ireland with his skills. It was not just that he was a better boxer than anyone else; it was that he so obviously enjoyed doing what he did. Just as the television viewer of Buckley in full flow could not avoid smiling as one of his neatly turned epigrams exploded over his unhappy liberal interlocutor, so there was a delightful and unforgettable elegance about Ali whether he was in the boxing ring or the television studio. Certainly he was the strongest ( just as Buckley was the wittiest) but he was also in truth “the greatest”
And what was this greatness? It was his capacity to communicate his own sheer love of what he was doing. Of course Ali was a professional. He had to be. His own background was modest, although one senses not exactly poverty stricken, but he always had something of the amateur about him- a man who did what he did because he relished what he did. Buckley was born to great wealth, and could have spent his life on the ski slopes, but he too hurled himself into the debate. Ali knew that his great skills as a boxer demanded more from him than merely victory in the ring. He delighted everyone, he spoke for millions, may he rest in peace.