When celebrities die, there are always people who feel the need to judge those who mourn them as if they knew them in real life, calling the legitimacy of their sadness into question. "You never talked about Prince or Michael Jackson or Robin Williams before," they say, rolling their eyes. "You don't have to jump on the mourning bandwagon." From an outside perspective, it might seem, to my Facebook friends, like I'm jumping on a similar sadness train after Muhammad Ali's death. I've never written an impassioned Facebook status about him, or made him my cover photo, or tattooed anything about him on my body. And yet suddenly, here I am on the morning after his death, crying my eyes out, and listening to the song "Black Superman," by Johnny Wakelin on repeat.
What they don't know, what they never could know, is that losing Muhammad Ali feels a lot like losing my grandfather, my abuelo, all over again.
My abuelo was a lot of things throughout his early life, including, but not limited to, a husband, father, part-time opera star, and a renowned boxing coach in his home country of Cuba. The boxing part, however, was the coolest part, the part that I will still tell anyone and everyone who would listen. My abuelo was a coach and what is known as a "matchmaker": the guy you call when you want to set up an amazing fight people will remember for a long time. Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao, Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns., and of course, Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier can all be credited to amazing matchmakers.
It wasn't just a matter of getting on a boat or a plane and hoping for the best. It was taking the dice of life, shaking them furiously in his hands, and throwing them with the hope that they'd land in a way that would keep him, his wife, and his daughter comfortable and safe in a new place.
If it sounds like a pretty sweet gig, it's because it was. But, when Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, my abuelo made the painful but brilliant decision to collect my abuela and then 1-year-old mother, pack his things, and leave his homeland for the promise of a non-Communist-ruled future in the United States of America. According to my late abuela who died with a collection of opinions about him, many of them not very nice, it was one of the only smart things he'd ever done.
While coming to the U.S. meant freedom, it almost meant a lot of unpleasant and scary things for my abuelo. It meant losing all of the property he left behind, most of his friends, and a really big chunk of his reputation. Who he was in Cuba didn't necessarily matter here, and the career my abuelo had set up for himself on the island was by no means guaranteed to follow him across the sea. It wasn't just a matter of getting on a boat or a plane and hoping for the best. It was taking the dice of life, shaking them furiously in his hands, and throwing them with the hope that they'd land in a way that would keep him, his wife, and his daughter comfortable and safe in a new place.
Things, ultimately, shook out pretty well, because my abuelo was able to continue his boxing career for the next 25 years of his life. By the time I was born in 1991, that part of his life was long over, but you wouldn't know it if you met him. From a tiny pair of boxing gloves that hung over his rearview mirror, to his annual habit of moving to the living room after a long family meal to turn on the latest boxing match (or whatever was on pay-per-view), it was evident boxing consumed his very existence. It also helped that it was one of the only things he and his son-in-law, my father — a sailor-turned-chef from Syria who still loves a good match to this day — had in common.
Imagine looking at a boxer who not only called himself The Greatest but also kind of was the greatest through a matchmaker's eyes. You could put him in any fight, send him headlong into any challenge, and he would succeed. If that isn't a hero, then what is?
Part of being indoctrinated into the American boxing landscape was, of course, learning about and witnessing the legend that was Muhammad Ali: the young outspoken black man from Louisville who earned the title of Heavyweight Champion Of The World just four years after my abuelo first landed in the U.S. The same man who, three years later, refused to be conscripted into the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs, which ultimately cost him all of his awards and titles in the sport of which he, unknowingly at the time, was becoming a cornerstone. The man who, despite attracting a large swath of varied public opinion, refused to give the privilege of defining him to anyone but himself.
Naturally, my abuelo was fascinated by him – and rightfully so. Imagine looking at a boxer who not only called himself The Greatest but also kind of was the greatest through a matchmaker's eyes. You could put him in any fight, send him headlong into any challenge, and he would succeed. If that isn't a hero, then what is?
Most of all, I think Ali and my abuelo hoped to do the same thing, which was rise above all odds in order to maintain and exceed their own greatness.
My abuelo had a lot in common with Ali. He was simultaneously a native and an outsider in a strange country that didn't know what to do with him: fluent in the nuances of one of America's most popular sports but not fluent in the language required to work in it. And not long after settling in the U.S., he also earned his fair share of negative opinions — beyond my abuela and my own mother — following a string of affairs we still feel the consequences of to this day. Most of all, I think Ali and my abuelo hoped to do the same thing, which was rise above all odds in order to maintain and exceed their own greatness.
The way he looked at Ali was the way I looked at him. My abuelo was the coolest guy I'd ever met. The World's Greatest, the indomitable. By no means perfect, but that somehow only made him better.
I don't need to tell you that Ali did. You know that already. But my abuelo did too. I know this because of one very special, quiet thing. What my abuelo didn't know for many years, because I was too young to understand that my time to tell him was fleeting and so I never did, is that the way he looked at Ali was the way I looked at him. My abuelo was the coolest guy I'd ever met. The World's Greatest, the indomitable. By no means perfect, but that somehow only made him better. Watching him win and succeed while also being a wholly imperfect and sometimes downright cruel individual proved to me that it is not perfection that is at the root of success, but rather tenacity.
Ali's death is an acute reminder of this, in part because someone like him could never exist today. In the cold, dark shadow of a country that still needs a movement like Black Lives Matter, that bolsters a presidential candidate who spits Islamophobia like it's a sermon, a black, Muslim American superhero is about as close to a oxymoron as it's ever been. When we lay Ali to rest in the days to come, it will feel like we are burying the dreams he inspired and the tolerance that brought us all together under his banner. It will feel like we are burying one of the last bastions of a time when things like tenacity and talent were enough to make someone superhuman. That somehow, after Ali, it is no longer possible for legends to exist, unless they look and act a certain way, and allow us to define them the way in which we are the most comfortable.
There are many days when I look at people like Ali and like my strong, wonderful, unstoppable abuelo and worry that this is true, that they just don't make 'em like that anymore and perhaps never really did. I worry that I am not and will never be close to achieving the level of tenacity it takes to overcome my flaws and imperfections, both perceived and actual, to thrive in a country that doesn't draw or cast superheroes that look like me. I worry that the court of public opinion will decide my name, my fate, and my legacy, despite my greatest attempts at preventing them from prying these precious things from my soft, brown, female hands. I worry that I, and so many of us, are nothing like Ali and my abuelo, able to achieve the level of greatness they carved their initials into like they created it themselves.
It's not easy, in fact it's really goddamn hard, but it's possible if you float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, fight to death, and refuse to let anyone write your destiny for you who isn't yourself.
Ali was once quoted as saying,
He knew he wasn't owed anything he didn't earn with hard work. That being said, he also never looked at the world and assumed there was no goodness left for him, even when he had every reason for doing so. He earned his own goodness, his own greatness, by creating it in spite of a world that, at no point, made it easy. This is, I believe, what he would want us to remember: It's not easy, in fact it's really goddamn hard, but it's possible if you float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, fight to death, and refuse to let anyone write your destiny for you who isn't yourself.
I think that's the message my abuelo wanted to leave me with too.