“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., Muhammad Ali embraced the gift of being a master wordsmith that had never been seen in any newspaper headline, radio broadcast, or television interview. His persona was larger than life and even when uttering a whisper, he would have the impact of an avalanche. Doing this may not seem like a big deal in this day-in-age of social media and personality saturation. On the other hand, picture a revolution of the Black Man to come during the civil rights era, which was never seen before, and it can be easily determined that what he did inside and outside of the ring is nothing short of a miracle.
The three-time lineal world heavyweight champion’s legacy was firmly cemented in what boxing enthusiasts call the “square circle.” Meaning the boxing ring where many added to Ali’s legacy, as they fell to the canvas after his punishing and cat-like quick blows. Within this realm, his legend grew to uncharted heights from the very moment he stepped into the ring. Before even suffering his first loss, he danced away from jabs and uppercuts, and demolished opponents on his way to the winner’s circle 31 times. In doing so, he put the world on notice of his extraordinary skills by defeating the great Sonny Liston in back-to-back bouts, where he won and retained the World Boxing Council (WBC) Title.
As he continued throughout his career, legendary slugfests against the likes of Ken Norton and Joe Frazier have created stories that are told throughout the generations. Father’s tell their sons of his willingness to win and be great in the midst of a teaching lesson, grandfathers tell their grandsons with great passion and admiration of his ability to gather neighborhoods around one radio to listen to the feats he accomplished, and mothers tell their daughters of how he inspires everyone to be the greatest and use him as an example of what to look for in a partner.
Across the globe to this day, people speak of the “Thrilla in Manila” where he knocked out Frazier in their third and final bout. The cherry on the top of the cake for his boxing catalog is the unforgettable exhibition of mental toughness and physical fitness that was revealed in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire against George Foreman. Ali performed and popularized the unforgettable rope-a-dope strategy where he appeared to be outmatched throughout the fight. In true Ali fashion, he surely had something up his sleeve. As Foreman exerted all of his energy attempting to go for the knock-out, Ali appeared to be taking a beating. All the while he was merely in an energy conservation mode, as Ali exploded like ticking time-bomb in the latter rounds of Foreman’s onslaught to knock him out in the eighth round. Many refer back to that bout as one of his best but do not fully understand what occurred. Foreman was in his prime, was a bona fide head-hunter and was feared by many of his peers, bouts were scheduled for 15 rounds, and the famed face of the “foreman grill” suffered the first loss of his career after fighting the Louisville, Kentucky native. It was not only the defeat, but the manner in which he did so that made Ali’s greatness second-to-none and solidified that he was in a category of his own.
But aside from Ali’s physical prowess within the ring, his true contributions have come by way of his humanitarian efforts and willingness to maintain his own personal belief systems, even if it meant forfeiting his boxing career. Just as big as he stood in the ring, he easily stood larger outside of the ring.
Staring in the face of adversity after being drafted into the armed forces, Ali had the choice of doing what he was told by the United States Army, or to do what he wanted to do in order to preserve his life and boxing legacy. Furthermore, his Muslim beliefs and the teachings within the Holy Qur’an provided him with an anti-war stance, which directly conflicted with the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War at the time. In a true act of risk, courage, and unshakeable religious belief, he refused to be conscripted into the armed forces. As a result of his refusal, he was stripped of his current title, lost a number of boxing licenses, was convicted of draft evasion, and was sentenced to five years in prison. Through this trying period, he did not fight from March 1967 through October 1970. These years are which many boxing pundits and experts have deemed the prime of his career as he missed out on three ripe years of boxing from the ages of 25 through 28. This could have derailed his entire career but as he had done up to that point and throughout his life, he persevered and maintained an optimistic standpoint on the future outcome. During this time, his case went through the appeals process and reached the Supreme Court of the United States where they overturned the decision of his sentencing in 1971. Upon his release, Ali went on to fight for eleven more years, posted a record of 27 wins and five losses, and won several heavyweight titles.
His life post-boxing has also shown the world of his ability to stand up to any medical challenge. Even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali’s resiliency has been front and center throughout his battle against it. Although his condition has deteriorated over the years, he has still maintained his humor and charm, which always brings applause and smiles to the faces he entertains when he profoundly raises his fist in the form of a boxing stance. Something only a true champ could display because of the fight that exists within. Such positivity, such grace, and such a glowing inner spirit has led to him becoming one of the most adored figures in pop-culture long after his retirement from the sport of boxing.
Humane initiatives of his include the creation and support of his very own Muhammad Ali Center, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center to assist the fight against the very disease he battled for more than 30 years, United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Special Olympics, and countless others that are geared towards adaptive sports clinics to help the rehabilitative process of those physically challenged all the way to elevating those who live in poverty to overcoming their environmental barriers and becoming productive members of society.
So as we all pay tribute in our remembrance of the man, the myth, the legend, do not forget to recite the following in a time of difficulty or misfortune: “Float like a Butterfly, Sting Like A Bee.” A sense of calm will likely swarm over the human body knowing that Ali said that during the intense training of his boxing craft, while on the way to forcefully knocking down any obstacle that life had to throw in front of him. For that quote which will stand the test of time, and be recited in sports lore and poetry courses around the world, let us celebrate Muhammad Ali and give a roaring round of applause to the life of the greatest boxer ever.
WE THANK YOU, WE LOVE YOU, AND YOU WILL ALWAYS BE REMEMBERED!