With Ali's death, we now live on a smaller planet

Story highlights

  • Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died Friday
  • Gene Seymour: For most of his 74 years, Ali's presence was steadiest, most reliable assurance we were all alive

Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN)Muhammad Ali has died and, as a friend of mine remarked the other night, we now know what it's like to live on a smaller planet.

To see him in action was to imagine superlatives gasping for air and clichés hiding in shame. To see him in person was to recognize there was no such thing as the unimaginable. I did. Twice.
    The second time was at a lecture when I was in college. No matter where you sat in the (inevitably) crowded theater, everything around him lost its shape and nothing else mattered in those minutes except whatever he had to say -- which, being the fall of 1970, essentially was that Joe Frazier better run when he sees him coming.
    Gene Seymour
    But the first time -- and the only time that matters to me -- was three years before, at Weaver High School in Hartford, Connecticut. We didn't know he was coming that day, which made his impromptu appearance in our dreary corridors all the more galvanic.
    I honestly don't remember anything he said. And I don't think I'm overstating matters when I tell you it felt as though the sun decided to come down from behind the clouds and hang out with us tiny earthbound drudges.
    Many of us drifted out of our classrooms and followed him into the hallways and out into the streets. Who would have told us not to? Not our teachers. Some of them also slipped out to watch him and his entourage leave as abruptly as they arrived.
    What just happened? we asked for days afterward. Were we dreaming? (No.) Are we the same? (Again, no.)
    Who could cause such massive midday disruption and make it at once a life-altering festival of life and the most natural thing in the world? Why, the King of the World, that's who.
    For most of his 74 years, Ali's presence was the steadiest, most reliable assurance that we were all alive, aware and alert to possibility. Even when Parkinson's disease plagued Ali in his later years, you were always reassured when you saw him.
    He wasn't perfect. (Greatness never is.) And he often had the grace to know it, remorseful to the end of both their lives toward how he'd mistreated Frazier, the one opponent who, as one sportswriter observed, "dragged the truth out of Ali" more than any other.
    Those who insisted on imagining Ali as being more than human misinterpreted how even his faults and follies allowed the rest of us to more readily recognize our own. That's what art is supposed to do -- and Muhammad Ali was his own masterwork, his shadows and light in perpetual, riveting combat. Maybe that battle was the real fight of the century.
    Artists and writers couldn't have created anything like him. So those with massive ambition (Norman Mailer most prominently) sought to project things onto him. Ali dodged their presumptions and expectations as cagily and as stylishly as he evaded George Foreman's sledgehammer blows.
    Perhaps only John Keats, with his centuries-old recognition that beauty is truth and vice-versa, nailed Ali better than anyone since.
    And since we are acknowledging the passing of the quintessential boxer-poet, let's send him off with what is widely acknowledged as the shortest poem ever written: "Me/Whee."
    Or if you will, Beauty/Truth.
    Safe travels, King of the World. And thanks again for dropping by my school.