Over the weekend one of the most famous people on the planet left us. Muhammad Ali slipped away at age 74 due to a respiratory ailment. When you talk about people who changed the world, Ali is certainly one of them.
His accolades include winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, becoming the youngest heavyweight champ up to that point in history, and being the first man to win the heavyweight title three times.
Today we remember him fondly and chuckle at his antics because they’re mild by today’s standards, but in the 1960s and 1970s he was as controversial a person as there was for several reasons.
First was his name change. He went from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam. During the ‘60s there wasn’t fear of Muslims like there is for many today, but Ali’s conversion was associated with the Nation of Islam and people like Malcolm X. This occurred during a time of high racial tensions as African-Americans asserted themselves to attain equal status.
Ali took a stand against the Vietnam War and would not report when drafted. While he didn’t serve jail time he did lose his heavyweight title and was banned from boxing for three years, at the height of his skills and prowess. He took a stand and was willing to pay whatever price was required because he believed the war was wrong and that injustice needed to be confronted at home.
Many people didn’t like his fighting style because he wasn’t one to “mix it up.” Many fans complained he was riding a bicycle rather than fighting. When he used the famous “rope-a-dope” to defeat the seemingly invincible George Foreman, those who didn’t like him said he didn’t fight Foreman. He didn’t fight Foreman for most of the bout but he outsmarted him and beat him!
At the time, no athlete was as vocal as Ali. He waxed poetically about how he would knock out his opponents, talked about how “pretty” he was, and unapologetically told the world, “I am the greatest!”
Was he the greatest boxer ever? Many people would dispute that. Those who saw Joe Louis in his prime, Rocky Marciano fans, followers of Sugar Ray Leonard, and many others might claim other boxers were better in their eras. But we will forever remember Ali as the greatest.
In a world without social media Ali was a self-promoter. He made us think what he wanted us to think and he became what he proclaimed. Many may not have agreed with him in the moment but as we look back we remember him as the greatest.
His greatness transcended his boxing career because Ali helped affect social change with his stance regarding racial equality. Later in life, the man who beat up people for a living was seen as a gentle giant and an ambassador for humanity.
One of Ali’s most memorable moments will forever be when he lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. Fighting Parkinson’s, he visibly shook throughout the ceremony. As I watched that again Saturday morning I almost cried.
For those of us who were fortunate enough to remember Ali during his athletic prime, it was something special. What can we take away from his life?
- Don’t be afraid to proclaim who you are but always be ready to back it up.
- Don’t be afraid to take a stand for what you believe but be ready to pay the price.
- Chase your dreams as if you’ve already achieved them but be willing to whatever is required.
- Use what you do and who you are to help others.
I hope you’ll take a few moments today to reflect on Muhammad Ali, the athlete, the agent of social change, the man, and the greatest.