Muhammad Ali and Einstein’s Theory of Relativity
by Marc Londo
Thoughts on a man’s transcendent journey through space and time
Photography by Len Trievnor/Express/Getty Images
In his 1905 paper, “The Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” Einstein based his theory of relativity on the interplay of two rules: 1) the speed of light is constant for all observers; and 2) observers moving at constant speeds should be subject to the same physical laws. Time slows because of the difference between the relative speed of a moving object and the observer’s frame of reference. Of course, Einstein’s theory flies over most people’s heads. Our eyes aren’t fast enough—nor are our brains quick enough—to comprehend this phenomenon.
The phenomenon of Muhammad Ali has been similarly vexing. Combining unnatural speed with a boisterous style, Ali was like nothing we’d ever seen. There was simply no frame of reference for him. Bernard Hopkins may be “The Alien,” but Muhammad Ali was super-human.
In the face of an oppressive society, at a time when borders needs to be crossed, Ali was brash and confrontational. His boxing punctuated his work as a social pioneer, and gave his performances an otherworldly quality. He was Einstein, inside and outside the ring, a higher-order personality that altered history. It’s not that he was ahead of his time; the world just never caught up to Muhammad Ali.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a heavyweight champion command so much attention, Mike Tyson being the most recent example. Some blame that on the overall decline in the popularity of boxing, but I’d argue that Ali was an anomaly. As great as Tyson was , Muhammad Ali hypnotized the world when he defeated three “Tysons” (Liston, Frazier, and Foreman) over the course of his career. Squaring off against the baddest men on the planet, with everyone thinking that he was finished, Ali defiantly stared into the abyss, resisting the iron mercenaries that stood to put him in his place.
And he did it with style. He did it with his mind. Muhammad Ali wasn’t the brute that coaxes the fans with a promise of savagery. Ali understood well the brutality that existed outside the ring, and he used the spectacle of his performance as a progressive moral allegory, demonstrating the power of un-civil disobedience on a stage that was beyond the jurisdiction of national prejudice. His matador-like hand speed and footwork made the spectators and his opponents frustrated they couldn’t hit him.
He wasn’t bound by social or physical laws. While Einstein’s Theory of Relativity suggests time travel is possible by increasing speed and decreasing time, Ali’s intuitive action foretold a march to change. Hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, he was intimately familiar with segregation. Nevertheless, as his nickname “the Louisville Lip” attests, Ali’s quickness as an orator defied subjugation. Throughout his life, his boasting was predicated on action, and vice versa. But it was more than what he said. It was how quickly he said it and the deliberate way he acted on it. It was like he was telling the future. It was like he’d been there.