During an introductory session to a course I was teaching last semester, I asked my students to share what they hold onto closely with the class. A common response, not surprisingly, was identity – religion, nationality and language.
Now imagine having to forego any of these (disturbing, right?). It is what wars are fought over and lives are laid down for. But there was one man who fought over many fronts of identity, yet inspired and earned respect. It was Muhammad Ali who, as they say, ‘floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee’. It was his ability to create an opportunity in tough times that made him great. The more I read about him, the more I continue to learn.
He was for sure a shameless self-promoter (boy, he was so good at it!). Now how many call themselves ‘the greatest’ or ‘the king’? He did not only say that but he believed that he was the best. It was a mix of this belief and confidence that made him threatening and pass daring statements like ‘if you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize’. He won the game psychologically even before he entered the ring. And it was exactly this flamboyance that made people cheer for him as “the champion” even when he’d lost his title.
Ali saw this love people had for him as a responsibility. Now as they saw him as a hero, he had to win for them. And he did. He faced the Fraziers and Foremans to set things right again as in his own words, “That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me”.
It was his goals that kept him going, as he’d say. He was FOCUSED. In pursuit of being the “champion”, it was that “something” deep inside him, a desire, a dream, which made him overcome any hurdle that came his way. As age took a toll on his speed, he switched to defense; when the opponent was “Big George”, Ali studied his style to beat with strategy and as Paterson instigated by calling him Clay, Ali channeled his anger as strength in the ring.
What made Muhammad Ali special was his strong character. He NEVER compromised on his principles, not even for his goals. And this came at a heavy price – a cancelled boxing license, stripped off title, denial of passport and at a personal level, divorced by wife.
All because he refused to be a part of the Vietnam War that he saw as immoral. Ali let go of what made him “the greatest” for what he believed in. That defines character – certainly, those who stand for nothing, fall for anything!
In adversity, he created opportunity. Ali neither quit nor compromised on his principles, rather enacted that “impossible is nothing”. As partners backed out post-Vietnam War controversy, Ali took his matches overseas – to Canada, London and Frankfurt. When he was denied of his passport, he spread racial awareness across the country on college campuses, campaigning for his case that he eventually won in the Supreme Court.
As Ali’s life took a turn, the once self-professed “greatest”, spoke of religion, traveling the world, not to fight but serve humanity and show empathy. This made the legacy of Muhammad Ali immortal.
But Muhammad Ali was not always celebrated. The greatness of his skill and character made many fearful. For some he was “black” and for others a “Muslim” – continuing to call him Cassius Clay was a hit at both, his slavery background and religion. They targeted his identity. The State did not honor his capabilities and snatched away his identity, both boxing and passport.
Three and a half decades after his final fight, tens of thousands of people attended his funeral service while millions across the globe paid tribute to “the people’s champ”.
Muhammad Ali said it right, “People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone. Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, the Beatles, and my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing”.