Muhammad Ali and the Courage that Defined Him
By: Kirk Jackson
The self-proclaimed “The Greatest” shocked the world many times over throughout the course of his life.
Muhammad Ali stunned us all with his passing last week and the world mourned his loss ever since.
Since his passing, there is an outpouring of sadness and tributes from various media outlets, networks, publications, celebrities, family, friends, admirers and so on.
Words cannot accurately describe Ali’s impact or the pain of losing him. Despite his ailments and continual physical deterioration, I was at a loss for words when it set in he was actually gone.
I, along with many others selfishly mourn the loss of Muhammad Ali, as he is easily recognized as one of the world’s most popular icons.
It is difficult to find the superlatives to describe his impact on the world and on me personally.
Those of us impacted by his courage, passion, brilliance, can attempt to carry on his legacy; as that may be the best way to pay tribute and honor him.
The best way I know to honor his memory is to adhere to that and do my best to carry on his legacy and to disclose his impact on me.
Ali’s professional career ended long before I was born or even thought of, but he was someone my mom fondly talked about constantly.
My mother would always speak of Ali like an older relative and we would watch his fights on ESPN’s Classic Fights; marveling at his performances against Joe Frazier and George Foreman as she would tell me he was the greatest of all time.
I would always ask why? Why is Muhammad Ali the greatest of all time?
I always wondered why he was so confident and talked so much trash. I pondered was he really that great?
As a young kid, I thought his confidence derived from his fighting skills. The way he would dance around the ring, flicker his beautiful left jab, dodge incoming attacks and sting his opponents with combinations. I thought that was pretty cool and I was a fan of the “Ali Shuffle.”
Of course I was too young to truly comprehend the wide array of skills from Ali; the intricate foot work and dexterity, his cat like reflexes and ability to predict the moves of his opponent, his head movement, his ability to execute complex moves such as a pull-counter, his ring savvy and overall intelligence, his various movements others would emulate years to come.
My mother never provided a definitive explanation as to why he was so great or simply the greatest, but she informed me he stood up for us.
As in “Us” she meant black people. As I grew up and gained more worldly experience and learned more about the Civil Rights Movement, I discovered some of things that made Ali so great.
Ali instilled a sense in pride for black people. He made me proud of what I am, without apology for it. Many instances we’re taught and told to act a certain way and with Ali, he carried himself in such a way, it was truly polarizing.
My mother made me read about The Black Panther Party and Malcolm X. She felt it was important for me to gain perspective and understanding about some of the significant people playing a huge part during the Civil Rights Movement.
There is a huge misconception about the Black Panther Party and Malcolm X, as they are inaccurately portrayed as hateful individuals, when in reality, they just wanted equality.
What is cool though is as I’m reading about Malcolm X and watching documentaries and such, I see Muhammad Ali.
Ali, the Heavyweight Champion of the world is hanging out with Malcolm X and speaking about the injustices black people are facing in America. How cool is that?
We have one of the world’s most popular athletes taking a socially conscious, political stand; firmly planting his seeds in the subconscious of American matters.
Taking a stand like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jesse Owens, Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Jackie Robinson and countless others.
That’s unheard of in today’s era. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, because there isn’t a need to tear down another person to prop up another, but that is the climate of our current era of social consciousness among athletes and celebrities in general.
Ali is different. Urban legend has it; this is the man who tossed his Olympic Gold Medal in the Ohio River out of frustration due to a racist encounter.
He stood up to the United States Government and resisted entering the military draft for the Vietnam War. In the midst of his physical prime, he was stripped of his World Heavyweight Title and essentially his occupation and means of earning money to provide for his family.
He was condemned by the media and his named dragged through the mud.
He faced scrutiny for being a prideful, outspoken Black American. He endured criticism for openly embracing and representing The Nation of Islam and Muslim faith.
And yet, he remained diligent and persevered.
It’s not just a black pride thing, because Ali embraced people of all color and nationalities as his impact was felt by everyone.
Ali is and was such a polarizing figure; his charm, charisma and energy transcended various platforms. It’s hard not to be drawn in and captivated by his way of words. It’s difficult not to respect and admire his convictions.
As I learned more and more about Ali, I discovered his courage did not derive from his fighting abilities.
His courage comes from his faith in God and he had self-belief:
“Allah’s the Arabic term for God. Stand up for God, fight for God, work for God and do the right thing, and go the right way, things will end up in your corner.”- Muhammad Ali.
He also was confident from within and that confidence allowed him to overcome any and every obstacle.
“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.” – Muhammad Ali.
Out of all of the remarkable traits about Ali, the most telling trait to me is his courage.
He is known and regarded as one of the best boxers of all time. In my opinion, his most significant fights did not take place inside the ring.
Yes Ali is celebrated for his trilogy with the legendary Joe Frazier, capped off with their epic third bout, “The Thrilla in Manila.”
There was the amazing fight where Ali showcased the “Rope-a-dope” strategy against George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle.”
And of course he had transcending fights against Sonny Liston, a grand trilogy with Ken Norton Sr., fights against Floyd Patterson, Ernie Terrell and others.
These were prime examples of Ali’s courageous exploits inside the ring. Battles that require physical and mental fortitude, battles that take a huge toll from a physical standpoint.
There were also intense, comical and entertaining verbal battles with the legendary Howard Cosell as well.
But one of Ali’s biggest battles was against the United States Government on behalf of his civil rights and on behalf of his religious beliefs.
Another big battle for Ali was against Parkinson’s disease. Ali battled this disease for more than 30 years.
Although we mourn the loss of Ali and his death may be related to the issues dealt from Parkinson’s disease, his life is an example of how strong the human spirit is and that we can fight this illness.
Ali was stripped of his speech but was not stripped of the ability to communicate and was not stripped of the ability to connect and touch people in a positive manner.
Carrying and lighting the torch at the Olympic Games, making appearances at different charities and fundraisers, still interacting with people despite his debilitating status; that is the epitome of courage and a prime example of fighting on despite strenuous circumstances.
The courage to continue on is what best describes Muhammad Ali and what he stood for.
Of course Ali was known for the gift of gab and referred to as one of the greatest trash talkers of all-time; as he was equipped with a razor sharp tongue. He was the “Louisville Lip” for good reason.
One of my personal favorite quotes from Ali in that regard is:
“If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.”- Muhammad Ali.
Of course we couldn’t talk about famous Ali quotes without mentioning his quintessential quote about butterflies and bees:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”- Muhammad Ali.
Ali truly exemplifies both the butterfly and the bee inside and outside the ring. The parallel for his inside-the-ring mastery in relation to bees and butterflies is easy to identify.
He was nimble on his feet as he floated around the ring, dancing around punches, graceful and majestic like a butterfly. He also packed a punch and had enough stings in his shots to wear opponents down and knock them out. George Foreman can attest to that.
Outside the ring, his harsh words used to insult opponents, left a stinging and agonizing imprint.
He entered the world as Cassius Clay and left as Muhammad Ali.
His transformation from brash and bold Olympic Champion, to eventual World Heavy Champion, to consensus People’s Champion, displays not only his physical growth, but also his spiritual metamorphosis.
Clearly signifying the metamorphosis, dignity and grace associated with the butterfly.
But I believe his most famous sayings and quotes are centered on the themes of courage and self-belief.
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.”- Muhammad Ali.
These words of wisdom are what I carry as they aid me along my journey of life. These words guided me through awkward teenage years, turbulent times throughout high school, post high school and beyond.
There is a poster of Ali that hangs on bedroom wall, along with a series of his quotes. I wore socks of his image, as I participated in and won the Collegiate National Boxing Championship tournament earlier this year.
If you’re reading so far I’m certain you can tell, this is a man I idolized. My younger brother would even joke that I would check on Ali’s status as part of my daily routine.
So when he was admitted to the hospital as it would turn out for a final time, accepting his loss was not easy to digest.
Part of the recovery process is writing this tribute; an assortment of thoughts about Muhammad Ali. Here’s how I will remember him, granted this is how he would like the world to remember him.
In a statement released from Ali, from his 2013 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey:
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”- Muhammad Ali.
I will abide by that going forward. I would also like to send prayers out to his family, close friends and everyone mourning his loss.
Thank you for all your contributions champ. As it turns out, you said it and it turned out to be true. My mother, among countless others echoed the same sentiments.
He was the Heavyweight Champion the World, Olympic Gold Medalist, activist, poet, humanitarian, bringer of peace, comedian, actor, self-promoter, but before that, he was a kid from the inner city of Louisville, Kentucky.
This brash young kid, developed into a magnificent man. A gentle, warm soul who touched billions of lives. His exploits inside the ring, battles and victories over racial divide, prejudice and injustice is not what makes Ali the greatest.
It’s everything that encompasses Muhammad Ali, which makes him the greatest. His triumphs, his failures, his moments of strength, his moments of vulnerability, his beauty, his uniqueness and again his courage.
You truly are the Greatest of All-time.
In the true essence of Muhammad Ali, Rumble young man rumble!!! Your spirit shall live on, God Bless.
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