By the time I was born, most if not all of Muhammad Ali’s legendary fights had been fought; at least the ones he had in the ring. When I reached an age to where I could remember things, he was no longer fleet of foot, able to slip the jab, or impose his will on his opponent. When I first saw him in the ring, he was a broken down hero whose mind was still willing but body was no longer capable of summoning the strength of will that the mind demanded. He stood in the ring, unwilling to budge against Larry Holmes who almost had too much respect for Ali and was just as unwilling to end the fight for him either.
Luckily for me, many of his legendary fights were then being rebroadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. I was able to see most of his legendary fights: his two fights against Sonny Liston, “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman, the first two fights with Smokin’ Joe Frazier, his fight against Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium. Seeing him in the ring when he was in prime, taking on all challengers with grace, was a wonderful opportunity. Ali gave his best while taking on his opponent at their best.
But to say that or to leave it there, would be an injustice for him and everything that he stood, for certainly his biggest fights were the ones that took place outside the ring. From the first fight he lost as an 8-year-old when he was bicycle was stolen that encouraged him to take up the sport of boxing to his possible eye-opening perspective of race relations in this country when he returned home from the 1960 Olympics in Rome. By the time had defeated Liston for the heavyweight championship and changed his name from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam he had taken on the views of the Nation in a way that no other athlete had or has since. And it just may be these two events that may have been the cornerstones of who Ali was as a person.
The most important thing to me to take away from it is that he never stopped learning or evolving as person, he refused induction into the United States Army based on the peace loving principles that he learned under Islam. As he infamously said:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali always made the argument and fought for the belief of peace and equality and why should he have to travel across the world to fight for peace for people when people in this very country were not fighting for his own peace, dignity and freedom. It was for that very stance that he lost the prime years of boxing career as he was stripped of the heavyweight title, imprisoned, and left with little money in which to take care of his family. It was at this juncture that his eyes may have become opened to how the Nation of Islam viewed him and humanity as opposed to how the true religion of Islam viewed the world, peace, and humanity.
After the Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft evasion in 1971, it was time for the “Fight of the Century” to take place. Ali vs Frazier for the heavyweight championship, the title that Ali had never officially lost. And depending on who you were rooting for during this fight pretty was determined by how you felt about Ali as a person. You were cheering for Ali if you believed in his principles and loved his verbal bravado and the way he had taken on the United States government and won. If you were rooting against him, then all of these attributes turned you off against him. But this is truly when he became the “People’s Champion.” And though he would go on to lose that fight against Frazier, he would always continue to be the People’s Champion.
Ali would demonstrate that championship spirit throughout his life, especially when the odds seemed the longest against him. There were not many people expecting him as a young man to defeat Sonny Liston and there were not many people expecting him to beat George Foreman, except the locals who continually chanted, “Ali bomaye,” wherever he went in Zaire. Yet both times he proved people wrong and was victorious. Ali would continue to prove people wrong as he evolved and developed throughout his life. He went from the young man he viewed white people as the devil to the man who learned to embrace and love everyone. The impact of his life is something that should live on forever, not just for the magnificent and wonderful things that he accomplished in the ring, but for the many wonderful things that he accomplished outside of the ring, the things that have helped to change the world.
Him momma might have called him Clay, and he may have changed his name to Muhammad Ali, but for many of us he will simply be “The Greatest.” There is never any need for there to be a qualifier on the end of it; the greatest boxer, the greatest person to live from Kentucky, the greatest Olympian, the greatest whatever. Quite simply, The Greatest person for us to learn from as to how we should live and be allowed to change over lives over time. Ali showed us all how to help our fellow man not based on religion, color, sex, gender identification, or any other criteria, but based on the fact that they are a person who simply needs help and we are in a position to provide that help.
“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”