Historians are not supposed to have heroes, at least not ones who shape major portions of our intellectual development and inspire dissertations. We’re supposed to float above it all, discerning patterns and applying logic to understand the past. I’ve never been good about following rules and expectations. Muhammad Ali is one of my heroes. Plain and simple. Nothing else about Ali is plain or simple, but from my first introduction to him (at age 11, as I watched him stoically light the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta via the television in my parents’ living room), he captivated me. Different than me in every way—Muslim, black, and oh so pretty—Ali taught me what freedom on your own terms looks like. How to embody activism and use words to cut and to empower. How to be strong in your convictions and resilient in the face of actual, real adversity (not what passes as adversity in sports today). A complex man of contradictions, Ali was the beauty in imperfection.
It is fitting that Muhammad Ali will rest forever in Cave Hill, amongst some of the best Kentuckians. But like Kentucky and the other men and women honored in that scared ground, Ali was not perfect. Like Kentucky, he was complex. Sometimes he was wrong or mean or downright nasty. He made mistakes and carried regrets with him throughout his life. But, to paraphrase another Kentuckian who couldn’t quite quit this place, his better angels often won out.
Ali gave so much of himself to the world. His lessons are deep and lifelong. He lived his life free to be what he wanted—The Greatest Of All Time.
So, thanks for that Muhammad, and for teaching a young Kentuckian to be proud and brave and unabashedly faithful to our beloved Bluegrass. Rest in peace and power.