Few images of conquest can be as striking and the aftermath as divisive.
The sight of a young Cassius Clay prematurely doing a victory lap around a fallen Sonny Liston brought to mind a vulture circling a carcass.
That was in 1965, in a highly anticipated return bout, a year after Clay had introduced himself to the world with a stunning upset of the seemingly indestructible Liston to wrest the heavyweight championship 52 years ago this week.
To an America haunted by a presidential assassination, torn by war, scarred by race riots and hungry for a hero, Clay tried to be a unifying force.
Instead, he would stoke extremist fear when he embraced Islam and jettisoned the name he was born with. He would fan nationalistic angst after refusing induction into military service and he would forfeit his right to the very symbol of his acclaim when he was stripped of his title.
His very early fall from grace was stark and public. His very private battle with racism years earlier seemed to foreshadow a kind of fatalism that he was ready to lose everything for what he believed in. It would take nearly 50 years before he received a replica of the Rome Olympic gold medal he had thrown into the Ohio River as a sign of protest against racial discrimination.
We know the rest of the story — the three world titles, the epic battles with Joe Frazier, the towering triumph over George Foreman, the humiliation from Larry Holmes, the moving appearance at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
The man who made sweet science out of a blood sport and rubbed and softened its brutal edges with trash talk, poetry and humor had become trapped in a motionless and silent world. Not the kind of motionless and silent we know but the kind we can only imagine.
It is in defeat to Parkinson’s disease that Muhammad Ali emerged a true champion. His work on behalf of sufferers and his humanitarian contribution to global causes spoke to the greatness he first bragged about and ultimately richly deserved.
Muhammad Ali died Saturday, aged 74, and left the world a legend.
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