One crucial point always overlooked in discussions of Ali is that when he converted to Islam after winning the title is that he was 22 years old at the time. College age. Think of what college students are protesting these days. (And would you want to be held responsible for all the things you said and did at 22?)
When Ali refused to be drafted in 1967, he was 25. At the time, and even now, people took his stances very seriously, as if he were some insightful statesman who had arrived at his decision after a lifetime of careful observation and study, and that his political views were of earth-shaking consequence.
(I was guilty of this myself two days ago when I wrote the previous post about his pronouncements about all whites being the devil, though that post was more about that idea than Ali himself.)
So, keep in mind that he was just a kid. Nobody ever saw him that way because he was the heavyweight champion of the world. But, he was still just a kid.
Anyway, back to the point of this post. What made Ali so likable?
It was that while the world was taking him very seriously, he, for the most part, didn't seem to take himself all that seriously. If you had to choose one word to describe Ali, it would be playful.
Traditionally, the heavyweight champion has carried the mantle of baddest man on the planet. Sonny Liston, that glowering, menacing, humorless man seemed like the kind of guy you'd expect to hold the title. You got the sense that he was dangerous outside the ring as well as in it.
Then along came a crown prince who hammed it up and spouted doggerel and proclaimed that he was the greatest of all time. But when he did these things, it was always with a touch of self-mockery. And while everybody else was taking his pronouncements very seriously, if you looked closely, you could see that he was basically just playing a big joke on the world.
While looking at those videos of Ali proclaiming that all whites were the devil, I also stumbled across this one, and this one, both of Ali's funnier moments, as well. In some of them he's taunting his opponents; watch closely, and you'll see he's just play-acting.
And even when I was looking at those videos of Ali saying that the white man is the devil, somehow I couldn't quite bring myself to dislike him.
When taking part in prefight publicity, he would often pretend to be angry at his opponents, but the "anger" was so obviously playacting that you almost got the sense he was incapable of real anger.
So he came across cute, in his uninhibited, boyish way.
The videos linked above show Ali with the rich and famous, but he never demonstrated any desire to social climb. He joked with everybody, and loved to mingle with people he met on the street. He could have been "friends" with anyone, but preferred to just hang with his entourage.
The closest equivalent today is Usain Bolt. Bolt jokes, dances, and plays to the crowd, just as Ali did. And you always get the sense he enjoys himself, just as Ali did.
You could say it's condescending to regard Bolt and Ali as embodiments of the old stereotype of the happy-go-lucky negro. You could say it's condescending not to hold Ali completely responsible for some of the things he said, the same way we would not hold a child responsible. And, maybe it is.
But, at the same time, it's an admission that these guys were charismatic in a way that most of us couldn't possibly hope to be, and enjoyed life more than we ever could.