The world mourns the loss of former heavyweight champ, Muhammad Ali. A boxer, self proclaimed as “The Greatest,” who soon had the entire universe calling him that as well. Although Ali held boxing’s most prestigious title of heavyweight champion for an unprecedented three times, the word prizefighter doesn’t encompass everything that Muhammad represented or his impact upon the world. Ali was a global ambassador of good will. Ali was a philanthropist. Ali was a hero. Ali was a politician. Ali was a cultural icon. Ali was a social activist. Ali was an entertainer. Ali was a philosopher. Ali was poet. Ali was a heavyweight humanitarian.
Muhammad Ali revolutionized the sport of pro boxing like no other fighter in history by making it more mainstream and marketable. Because of Ali’s personality, flamboyant fighting style, his outspokenness, and confidence, he was the first prizefighter to cash in on million dollar purses that led to the breaking of bank vaults for all fighters from future generations to now earn.
Muhammad never ducked a single opponent throughout his illustrious career and in the mark of a true champion; Ali avenged losses to the likes of Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and Leon Spinks. His who’s who list of opponents didn’t stop there as Ali also defeated such distinguished Hall of Fame fighters as George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and Floyd Patterson in his unparalleled career. Other opposition that Ali went “toe-to-toe” for in his lifetime included racial equality and religious freedom.
Perhaps Ali’s most renowned victory was that over the United States Government. Due to Muhammad’s Muslim beliefs, he refused to be inducted into the United States Army to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali strongly felt that the war was racist and would cause further harm to innocent, poor people. Muhammad would stress that this country wants him to travel 10,000 miles to fight for it, when the United States won’t even stand up and fight for him and his rights here in America. Ali would boldly announce, “I have no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger!” As a result, Ali’s boxing license was suspended and he was stripped of his heavyweight title. Ali was arrested and banished from boxing for four years and willing to sacrifice the prime years of his career to stand by his decision. Ali’s case was appealed and eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, where it was then overturned in 1971. Ali was reinstated to fight and recaptured the heavyweight title in 1974 with a knockout victory over George Foreman in Zaire, Africa.
Ali’s courage was also demonstrated in his 32 year battle with Parkinson’s syndrome. In spite of the disease, Ali still remained an ambassador of good will by making personal appearances all around the world for various causes.
Known for his clever, ingenious quotes, poems, and rhymes, an entire book consisting only of the profound sayings of Muhammad Ali could make the New York Times Bestseller’s list. My favorite one of all time is listed before the introduction of the book that I wrote, Hold Your Bald Head Up High: Win While Losing Hair which states “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision”; a quote that has become my mantra in life. Ali also authored such other classics as “The man with no imagination has no wings” and “Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Muhammad on three different occasions through his daughter and my very good friend, Miya Ali. Each time, found myself overwhelmed with nerves and in awe because I knew that I was in the presence of royalty. Ali took a couple pictures with me and signed a pair of boxing gloves that my wife and I have displayed in the den of our home. That souvenir remains the most popular conversation piece whenever guests come over. Although the effects of Parkinson’s were very apparent when introduced to Ali, his mind, wit, charm, and humor seemed just as sharp as it did over 40 years ago. I accompanied my childhood friend, Nate Smalls to meet Ali, who’s also a distant cousin to Miya. When Miya asked her dad did she remember Nate, from when he was a young boy, Ali comically quipped, “Still ugly!” The entire room erupted with laughter. The only thing missing from this moment was Howard Cosell.
In 1964 after defeating Sonny Liston at 7-to-1 odds, to win the heavyweight title for the first time, Muhammad Ali would repeatedly shout a quote that not only summarized the magnitude of the victory, but also define his career, life, and legacy until the end of time. As Ali told reporters, “I shook up the world!” And indeed he did!