Muhammad belonged to everyone
Muhammad Ali, world champion an Olympic gold medal boxer; fighter for civil rights and poster boy for building awareness of his illness, Parkinson’s Disease, died last Friday at 74 in a Phoenix , Arizona hospital of respiratory complications. Ali became a Parkinson patient in 1984 and battled the disease for three decades. According to Lindsey Tanner, a journalist, “Advocates say the boxing great transformed the public’s understanding of the disease and showed that patients can live long , productive lives instead of sitting at home hoping for a cure…But perhaps because the “fighter” analogy is so often linked to patients facing difficult illnesses, Ali’s influence was unique. “
Aside from knowing about his disease, along with his signature mantra, “I am the Greatest” and being aware of his three world championship opponents, I have to admit that I knew very little else about the man and his accomplishments. I sincerely regret that, because in doing my research, l learned about a person who really was larger than life but preferred to maintain his dignity, give to others raise funds for Parkinson’s research.
Before Parkinson’s robbed Ali of his health and eventually his speech, Muhammad Ali was a tough aggressive fighter. In the early days of his career, the man who had been born Cassius Clay and who became Muhammad Ali after adopting the Kingdom of Islam, was as much known for the outlandish things he said and believed in as he was for his success as a world champion boxer.
Those views as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War caused Ali to be found guilty of draft evasion charges, sentenced to prison and be stripped of all of his boxing titles. He was able to avoid prison by successfully appealing in the U.S. Supreme Court. And after five years the high court overturned the conviction and Ali’s title and reputation were restored.
As a fighter, according to his biography, “Ali regularly taunted and baited his Opponents—including Liston, Frazier and Foreman—before the fight and often during the bout itself. He said Frazier was ‘too dumb to be champion’, that he would whip Liston ‘like his daddy did’, that Terrell was an ‘Uncle Tom’, and that Patterson was a ‘rabbit.’
“Epitomized by his catch phrase, ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, Ali had a highly unorthodox boxing style for a heavyweight. Never an overpowering puncher, Ali relied early in his career on his superior hand speed, superb reflexes and constant movement, dancing and circling opponents for most of the fight, holding his hands low and lashing out with a quick, cutting left jab that he threw from unpredictable angles.” He was also known for his incredible eye movements, a strategy that also helped him remain ahead of his opponents and control the action in the boxing ring, and “Dope on a Rope” where Ali left himself vulnerable to being on the ropes with opponents throwing punches but while tiring themselves out and allowing Ali to rebound and score a knock out or a knock down.
For me, probably the most poignant moment in Ali’s later life was the night he lit the Olympic Flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. According to Dick Ebersol, a former NBC executive who lobbied the head of the Olympic Organizing Committee to use Ali instead of champion boxer Evander Holyfield, believed that the only choice was Ali. “Muhammad Ali may be, outside of perhaps the Pope, the most beloved figure in the world.
Journalist Matt Bonesteel of The Washington Post pointed out that “things almost went awry on the night of the Opening Ceremonies as the torch itself almost didn’t light because they had filled it with too much propellant, leaving no oxygen.”
Ali looked larger than life in a white robe. “He keeps holding the thing there hoping that it will get lit. You can see flames licking back against his forearms…Finally just enough repellant burns off and the little rocket starts to go in little bits…Finally after about 15 seconds of starts and stops it took off and went up and lit the cauldron,” I couldn’t hold back the tears that night and I know I wasn’t alone. Ali was everyone’s hero.
President Obama said it best for me. In 2009, just after his inauguration, which Ali attended, Obama wrote, “This is the Muhammad Ali who inspires us today—the man who believes real success comes when we rise after we fall; who has shown us that through undying faith and steadfast love, each of us can make this world a better place. He is and always will be the champ.”