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Chance The Rapper channels The Champ

The Chicago performer’s perfect storm of a tribute to Muhammad Ali

Wednesday night’s ESPYS were an emotional roller coaster. The show tipped off with NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James calling for an end to gun violence in America. There was also the incredibly powerful story of Zaevion Dobson, and a tribute to Jimmy V Perseverance Award recipient, Turner Sports sideline reporter Craig Sager. So it seemed only fitting the show went out on a knockout with a musical tribute to the late boxer and humanitarian, Muhammad Ali, from dexterous Chicago emcee Chance The Rapper.

Chance was born on April 16, 1993, nearly 12 years after Ali’s final fight against Trevor Berbick. So like many under the age of 35, Chance only knew the Ali who battled Parkinson’s disease — the Ali who was stripped of his heavenly gift of gab after once being the world’s most charismatic personality. Yet, Chance’s tribute to the late boxer with the song, “I Was A Rock,” tapped into the spirit of the three-time world heavyweight champion.

Joined onstage by musician Donnie Trumpet, singer/poet Jamila Woods, producer Peter Cottontale and vocalist/producer Teddy Jackson, Chance honed in on The Champ with lyrics such as, I swear ain’t nowhere greater/ Ain’t nowhere brighter/ Ain’t nowhere better, better, better, better/ Ain’t no one prettier/ Ain’t no one wiser/ Ain’t nowhere better, better, better, better.

The lyrics embodied The Champ — who was no stranger to the world of poetry and music himself — so well, he could have written the song himself (which of course he did not). That’s a testament to Chance, who is having an amazing year. From his affiliation with his hometown Chicago White Sox, to meeting with President Barack Obama and to delivering quite possibly the project of the year in his 2016 mixtape, Coloring Book, paying homage to the world’s most popular and influential man is a natural next step in his ascension to rap’s elite.

The foreword from Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a man who sat on the front line with Ali as he battled the U.S. government over his induction into the Vietnam War. The gospel choirlike backdrop, which has become a staple of Chance’s attack. The running collage of images depicting Ali the family man, the champion and the world leader. Well-placed sound bites from a July 16, 1977, interview. And Chance, clad in the black suit, white shirt, black tie ensemble — a collection The Champ helped make cool in the ’60s —while rocking his own “3” hat. All these elements combined for the perfect storm of a tribute to the perfect storm of a man.

In that same July 1977 interview, Ali addressed the topic of death as a subjective concept. He said a person’s time on Earth amounts to a temporary stop for an eternal resting point, but it’s what a person does in his borrowed time that truly matters. “Your soul and your spirit never die,” he said. “That’s gonna live forever.” Part of Ali’s spirit and soul lived in Chance The Rapper on Wednesday night in Los Angeles.

Justin Tinsley is a culture and sports writer for The Undefeated. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single-most impactful statement of his generation.