For a kid who was raised on action movies and comic books, the superstars of the boxing world seemed like real life cartoon characters. I vividly remember the fights my father would order on pay-per-view, the gathering of friends and family, to watch these titans battle it out. These battles seemed like the center of the universe and guys like Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis were gods. It was like the worlds I read in the pages of Marvel and DC comics were real, and these boxers were proof.
As much as I loved the heavy weights of my youth, it was when I discovered Muhammad Ali that I truly believed superheroes were real. Watching old VHS tapes of his fights against Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Sonny Liston was like watching live action versions of Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths. This was Superman against the mightiest of foes, battling with grace, speed, and intensity. Ali was unlike anything I had ever seen, or would see again. I became obsessed, hanging his posters on my wall and crafting my Dungeons and Dragons characters with Ali’s cockiness and finesse.
I was in my early teens when I got my hands on a copy of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a comic book from the 70s that seemed to prove every theory I had about Muhammad Ali. Here was the world’s great athlete, going toe to toe with Superman, kicking the Man of Steel’s butt, all brought to life by the glorious line work of Neal Adams. The story inside was a little bizarre, even by Superman standards, but I was head over heels in love. Superheroes were real, they walked among us and this comic proved it.
Even years later, as I grew into a jaded and angst-filled punk rocker, Ali remained a hero. While other heroes always seemed to play it safe and become pawns of the government or popular opinion, Ali stood for the greater good. The more I learned about him, the more I was amazed. Whether you agreed with his politics or not, you could not help but be impressed with his conviction. Ali took a look at the status quo and punched it out. He never backed down, never played it safe, and never said anything less than what he was thinking. Ali was a superhero, sure, but he was also punk as all hell.
Muhammad Ali was more than a just a boxer. He was more than just a sports icon. He was loudmouthed, angry, outspoken, and beautiful, a god among men who demanded your attention every time he was on screen (or in the pages of a comic book). It was this charisma, and his unwavering commitment to the causes he believed in that made him a superhero. He stood for something; when others would (and did) back down, he stood tall. He faced jail time, public ridicule, and threats of violence, but he never backed down. If he believed in something, he fought for it with everything he had.
You could take just about any Muhammad Ali quote and plug it into the speech bubble of a superhero and it’d fit. Personally, I’m partial to the one below. It feels like it describes every moment when the forces of good faced the overwhelming odds of the forces of evil. Muhammad Ali spoke like my favorite Marvel and DC superheroes, because he was one of them.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Rest in peace, Champ.
images: DC Comics