Lessons from The Greatest

Back in elementary school, I was tasked with choosing a ‘famous’ person who had made a difference in my life. Many students chose presidents. One picked Jackie Kennedy. Another, Marilyn Monroe.

I picked The Greatest.

Saturday morning I entered my living room, turned on CNN and learned that Muhammad Ali had passed away at age 74. I should have seen it coming; I should have been more mentally prepared. I knew these last years were rough. I should have known.

But I didn’t, and I certainly wasn’t ready. I dropped my purse onto the floor, and sipped my coffee while in a slight state of shock.

Ali was the reason I had a heavy bag throughout my youth and teen years. He’s the reason behind so much of who I am today.

Sure, he’s always been known for being pretty, being feisty, confident and of course, the greatest. He’s deserving of all those and more.

The Louisville native won his first Olympic gold medal in 1960. He was 18, and known as Cassius Clay. Before one of his matches at the games in Rome, he made a prediction: that he would win by a knockout in the second round. …His prediction came true. He continued making similar predictions on his matches, often in poem or rhyme form.

In Ali’s 1975 autobiography, he wrote that after returning to his hometown, he attempted to eat at a ‘whites-only’ restaurant, and he threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio river.

In 1964, after going professional, his record was 19-0. He was the underdog in the championship fight against Sonny Liston. In his typical fashion, he predicted victory in a brash and colorful manner.

In the beginning of the seventh round of the bout, Liston refused to leave his corner and the fight ended with Clay becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

Later that same year, he announced that he was a muslim, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

His fighting style set a precedent. I could have only wished – in my young years passionate about fighting – to be as quick. I couldn’t even come close to his speed, precision, accuracy. No one could. That’s why he’s the greatest. But that’s not the only reason.

Now it was his actions in April 1967, outside of the ring, that made me realize that this human was not just a fighter, a fantastic boxer. He was an incredibly smart man who was about to become a champion of a people.

Of course, many disagreed with his actions then, and I’m sure many do today.

Ali was drafted in 1966, and was called to serve in the Vietnam War. Prior to his induction which was scheduled for 1967, Ali made many statements as to why he would not be fighting:

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?

No, I am not going ten thousand miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would put my prestige in jeopardy and could cause me to lose millions of dollars which should accrue to me as the champion.

But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is right here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…

If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.”

I recall one of my teachers in school referring to Ali as a ‘draft dodger.’

Shy, quiet little me piped right up, clarifying the difference between a ‘draft dodger’ and conscientious objector.

I recall going home and telling my mother that my teacher was incorrect, and tried to discredit the actions and words of a man who was standing up for his beliefs and a man who was a civil rights champion for so many people.

Ali was subsequently arrested following his refusal for induction. He was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000 and banned from boxing for three years. He stayed out of prison as his case was appealed and returned to the ring on October 26, 1970, knocking out Jerry Quarry in Atlanta in the third round.

Ali was not only a champion for folks like me.

After his statements on Vietnam, Dr. Martin Luther King said in 1967, “Like Muhammad Ali puts it, we are all—black and brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression.”

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, he said that Muhammad Ali gave him hope that the walls would some day come tumbling down.

Ali redefined what ‘tough’ meant. The difference he was able to make in a culture that worshipped sports and violence while also idolizing African American athletes and criminalizing their skin color, Ali was able to bring so many together.

He made it known that it was important to speak the truth, no matter the cost.

Ali taught a simple lesson: “real men” fight for peace and “real women” raise their voices.

Bryant Gumbel once said on Ali, “Muhammad Ali refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage.”

…Ain’t that the truth.

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. His public appearances became few and far between – that is until his appearance at the 1996 Olympics.

I remember watching it. I sat in front of the television at eight years old and watched him – with a trembling arm – light the Olympic cauldron. That moment not only opened my eyes, but the world’s eyes, to a disease worthy of more attention. He became the face of the struggle of the disease.

Still, you could see the heart of a champion. The heart of the greatest.

Once he lost his ability to speak because of the disease, gone were the days of his witty one-liners and poems. Gone were the statements of how pretty he was.

Ali’s last known public appearance was at a fundraising event for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute, to which he donated millions. He was donned in sunglasses and didn’t speak, but deservingly received his final standing ovation.

In a Tweet written by his daughter Hana when Ali was hospitalized last week and after the family was told his health was not going to improve, she said hey held his once powerful hands. They hugged and kissed their 74-year-old father. They chanted Islamic prayer. Hana wrote that some of his children opted to whisper in his ear: "You can go now. We will be okay. We love you. Thank you. You can go back to God now.”

After Ali’s organs had failed, his heart continued to beat for 30 additional minutes.

That, my friends, is strength. That, is great. That, gives me hope.

Ali said in the years following the Vietnam issue, “Some people thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I just wanted to be free.”

Isn’t that what we all want? To be free?

Ali’s words on Vietnam can be changed slightly and still be relevant today.

Ali has helped me to remember to be kind. To care. To be politically aware. To stand up when everyone else sits down. Reminded me that some days, I don’t need to straighten my crown. He helped me to understand that I don’t need to apologize for who I am or what I believe, and that I am capable of anything I want to achieve.

Rest easy, Champ. You will always be The Greatest.

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