(BALTIMORE – June 3, 2016) – We lost a giant, folks. Muhammad Ali (http://muhammadali.com/), born as Cassius Clay, wasn’t just a giant in the ring. He was a giant of a person, a humanitarian, a friend to people all over the world. Sure, he could talk smack: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” At the same time, his kindness and generosity permeated the hearts and souls of people from Zaire to China to the United States.
He was a gentle giant of sorts who lived 74 powerful and meaningful years. He truly demonstrated what being a champion is all about. Sure, one may hit more homers than everybody else or run more touchdowns. Ali, however, showed humanity how to carry it in real life.
I’ll never forget the day in the mid-90s when he came to Coppin State. Ursula Battle was Baltimore’s leading black journalist at the time. Those of us old enough to know his story flocked around him. What I most recall is how patient he was with people. He knew human behavior. He knew people wanted to see him, touch him. He had a wisdom about him that far exceeded this lifetime – as if he had been here before.
There are times when celebrities who aren’t nearly as well known as he have the proclivity to act the fool in public. Not Ali. He was a man of class and dignity. Having met people all over the world, you would never catch him out of character. Mind you, he had met everybody from Nelson Mandela to Dr. King, Prince to Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Malcolm X to Pres. Barack Obama. All I can say is “Wow!” Can you imagine?
So, sure Ali was the baddest man in the ring. He was and will remain ‘The Greatest of All Time’. At the same time, may we all be reminded of the values he portrayed.
He was a man who had not only the heart to go in the ring, but to also stand up for his values. He refused to fight a foreign enemy because he felt the enemy at home was far worse. And although his move was unpopular with some, I absolutely love and admire a person who does what he or she believes is right no matter who agrees or disagrees.
According to Wikipedia: “In 1964, Ali failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were sub-standard. With the escalation of the Vietnam War, the test standards were lowered in November 1965 and Ali was reclassified as 1-A in February 1966, which meant he was now eligible for the draft and induction into the U.S. Army. When notified of this status, he declared that he would refuse to serve in the U.S. Army and publicly considered himself a conscientious objector. Ali stated that “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Ali also famously said in 1966: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger.”
For me, this elevated his legendary appeal. He did what so many others did not have the mindset to do: Determine his own future. Further, his objection said to the world that the Negro, the African American, the black man …. can and must think and do for himself.
As we all know, America has never been very gracious to black people. There is an insidiously cunning hatred in a lot of white Americans historically. Attacks from yesteryear by white mobs and the Ku Klux Klan are now replaced with a more institutionalized form of racism that presents itself in the oddest of places, like on a job application.
To me, Ali represented black people in a phenomenal way because he proved that we can accomplish anything to which we put our all into doing.
Clearly, he showed that drive and determination in his training and in his fights. He had a way of fooling the entire coliseum, like with his rope-a-dope style where he played possum and let George Foreman punch himself out – only to come back with a handful of lightning punches to put Foreman’s lights out in the 8th round of the 1974 classic called “the Rumble in the Jungle.”
Speaking of George Foreman, few can argue that Ali, who was 8 years older than he, helped him to grow. Everybody Ali touched grew in some way. Besides, Ali had a lot of class.
It was such an honor to see the champions interacting in years to come. They showed us that beyond the sporting event, we are still people. We are civilized. And we can and should have a lot of dignity.
They collectively taught the rest of us how to be champions.
Joe Frazier was another noted Ali opponent. What a joy to see those two go at it. Yet, just like with Foreman, these men acted like winners years later when in each other’s presence. There was a mutual respect.
As a young black kid watching Ali, I am reminded of what a black boxing champion does for the morale of Black America – especially one of the caliber of Ali. These gladiators of the ring help to instill pride in the masses. It is their ability to reach down and touch a child that makes them great, and that is what I so love about Muhammad Ali: he had a compassion that spoke volumes; he made everyone feel special.
As a believer, I rejoice that ‘The Greatest’ has completed his assignment on this side of glory and can now go one to heaven where he is already harassing Howard Cosell. Those two alone brought a healing balm in their joking and laughter. They showed the rest of the entire world that despite our differences in physical appearance, we are all human. Further, if we try, we can probably find a lot more commonalities than what’s on the surface.
Ase’! … to the Greatest of All Time – in and out of the ring!