Learning From A Legend: Reflections On Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali began his training in 1954, at the tender age of 12, and retired in December of 1981. He stood up to many more challenges outside the ring than inside the ring. In truth he was a fighter in both arenas, up until the day he died.
As the world mourns the death of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., I thought this a fitting time to reflect on how this man, the greatest, impacted the world for the better. His golden heart and silver tongue worked together to create slogans in the minds of millions of fans worldwide. His mantras can get you fired up in the morning and keep you going in the face of the most challenging odds.
Ali’s career began when he informed a police officer of his intention to whip a robber who had made off with his bike. The officer went on to show him how he might channel his frustrations in a more constructive and uplifting manner. The rest, as they say, is history.
Muhammed went on to achieve a breathtaking list of accolades in sport. But he never sacrificed his mission of peace. He was a rights activist throughout his career. A firm advocate of religious freedom and racial justice, Ali maintained, “hating people because of their color is wrong and it doesn’t matter which color does the hating, it’s just plain wrong.”
I often consider, when I become frustrated at the smallest hint of a challenge, the way he rose up after being beaten down, time and time again, amassing a string of legendary victories in his wake. Although he said he hated every minute of training, he believed in the motto, “Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” His spirit was unquenchable. His strength and lust for life was contagious. In 1981, he actually talked a man out of jumping of a ninth floor ledge, persuading him to keep on living.
A cat may have nine lives but that doesn’t compare to the fact that this man successfully raised nine children, who revere him as a father, all the while maintaining his position as a World Champion and campaigning for human rights. As for how many lives he must have worked through, I can’t begin to fathom. Diagnosed with Parkinsons back in 1984, it was occasionally rumored he would be dead within days, only to find him up and about years later. His twin daughters recently told CNN that, although they hardly remember him without Parkinson’s, he was the perfect father and role model, the kindest man they have ever known.
I wonder if the man who once refused him a drink of water in a store when Ali was a boy, on account of his color, ever realized he had dismissed a legend. His activism became known when he refused to be conscripted in 1966, citing his opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam war. That’s not to say he was afraid, as he proved on the countless occasions in which he faced and outsmarted death in the ring. He was a messenger of peace for the UN in later years, protesting the war in Afghanistan, still fighting the good fight.
It’s been said that Ali changed the standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Indeed, he believed that unless you use that heart of gold and silver tongue to make a positive impact on the world and uphold the motto of peace, you are nothing more than self-serving. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
As I sit looking through a list of Ali’s quotes, I am dumbfounded that they all came out of the mouth of just one man. So outstanding was he that I’m quite sure that millions of people who have never even heard of him, use his mantras (“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”). Other than a tremendous champion and humanitarian, I also like to remember him as something of a comedian…as he once said, “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.”