How do you begin to write about an icon; one of the few people, other than the Pope, who have been known worldwide for over a half century? The world knew his name. He was perhaps the most recognized man on the planet Earth. What more could be written? What secrets lie unknown? His entire life has been documented for history on radio, film, television, and in more books than the entire collection of the Encyclopedia Britannica. From the jungles of the Philippines to the deserts of Africa and all across this great land, the name Ali resonates with young and old, men and women, of every color and nationality, sitting around tables and telling stories. Smiles break out on their faces and their heads begin to move side to side in disbelief as their memory takes them back to a time when a loud, brash, insulting young boxer, not only changed his name and religion, but like the armies of Alexander the Great against the Persians at Issus, he waded knee-deep through the best collection of heavyweight boxers this world has ever seen. Ali always seemed to be in a hurry, and he boxed like he was double-parked. In a sport populated with more celebrities than a “Red Carpet,” Ali was always the best boxer in the room and disposed of his opponents like a box of Kleenex.
I was one of the millions who were mesmerized by Ali. Every picture taken of a young Ali had him with his mouth open. It was as if he had been born during a thunderstorm. He always put on a show before, during and after each fight. Ali had a wonderful smile, but those eyes, those eyes could see right through you. Ali could have been undefeated in a staring contest. He was authentic, a pioneer, muscles glistening under the ring lights; he was over-the-top, the “Louisville Lip,” the “Greatest of All Time.” With his hands down style, dancing constantly, bouncing on his toes in the ring, Ali put the sport on the world map and helped usher in the Golden Era of Boxing.
So begins my story of Muhammad Ali, the ultimate song and dance man. You see, I’m one of those old guys and from the age of nine, I followed his career, sometimes angry, sometimes enlightened, but always mesmerized and after all that has been said and done, I’m proud to be able to say to any man, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of Muhammad Ali.” That’s right. Not only did I get to meet Ali in January of 1994, in Houston Texas, but I also had him sign a book and a pair of white Everlast boxing trunks, with black stripes down the sides. I could not believe how big he was in person and when I saw him up close, he was even bigger. I also shook his hand and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. I think I surprised him. Everyone waiting in the autograph line joined in.
His given name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, and named after a former politician. His mother, Odessa, was a cook and house cleaner. His father was a sign painter. Cassius grew up in a little pink house located at 3302 Grand Avenue. He loved playing board games and eating hotdogs with his brother, Rudy, and started boxing at the age of 12, after his new red Schwinn bicycle was stolen off a downtown street. Cassius reported the theft to Officer Joe Martin, who also ran a boxing gym. When Cassius described what he wanted to do to the thief, Officer Martin suggested he first learn to box. Officer Martin would train Clay for the next six years. His amateur debut occurred in 1954. Clay won six Kentucky Golden Glove titles and two National Golden Glove titles. Cassius was not a very good student and excelled in only art and gym class. He graduated 376 in a class of 391 from Louisville Central High School. He later said he never really learned to read a book and had to memorize his speeches. He was part of the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team that traveled to Rome. I watched him fight because I loved the Olympics; it was us against the world, and he was representing America. I was not disappointed.
In his later life, Ali became somewhat of a saint. Ali was able to transcend from one of the most controversial figures in sports to one of the most beloved. He was respected for sacrificing over three years of his boxing prime for standing firm on his anti-war principles. His demeanor grew softer in old age and the public responded to him in a positive way. Ali generated so much good will that the public’s perception of him changed. Ali had many famous quotes. My favorite goes like this: “It isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you down. It’s the pebble in your shoe.”
Ali, a social activist, on integration: “God made us all different. It’s natural to be with your own. I want to be with my own. I have a beautiful daughter and a beautiful wife and they both look like me. We’re all happy and we have no troubles. Every intelligent person wants their child to look like him. I want to be with my own. I love my people.”
The number of awards that Ali has received are too numerous to mention. Here are a few of the most prestigious. On September 7, 1960, Cassius Clay won an Olympic Gold Medal in boxing. In 1990, Muhammad Ali was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Although trembling and nearly unable to speak, Ali was chosen to light the Olympic caldron at the 1996 Olympic Summer games in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali the Sportsman of the Century, and he became the first boxer to appear on a Wheaties Box. On January 8, 2001, Ali received the Presidential Citizen Medal from President Bill Clinton. On November 9, 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom. This is the highest award that can be achieved by a citizen in the United States. Also in 2005, the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum dedicated to respect, hope and understanding, opened in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Sports Illustrated announced that Muhammad Ali would grace their cover for the 40 time, during the week of his death.
In the ring, his agility, lightning hand speed, barrage of powerful punches and unpredictable movement allowed him to overwhelm his opponents. He was beautifully trained and conditioned. He circled his opponents like a well-oiled machine. What’s important to remember is that Muhammad Ali defeated every top heavyweight contender in his era. According to his trainer, Angelo Dundee, Ali just made it up as he went along. “Ali worked as hard as he talked,” said Dundee. He broke all the rules in the boxing handbook. He pulled away when he threw a punch, and again when a punch was thrown his way. Dundee criticized him for not slipping punches by moving his head and for keeping his hands low by his side instead of up in front of his face. Ali dared you to swing at him.
To become the Heavyweight Boxing Champion, you first have to win a fight. And win, he did. He was the 1960 Light-Heavyweight Olympic Champion and a three-time World Heavyweight Champ. His opponents were up and down off the canvas so many times they must have thought they were riding on an elevator. Over 21 years, his career win-loss record stands at 56-5, with 37 wins by knockout. He had fought in a squared ring for more than two decades, but his stage was never big enough. In the ring he became known for the “Ali shuffle.” He will be remembered more for what he did outside the ring, what he stood for, and what he believed in. People don’t become great because they are perfect every time out. They become great when everything goes wrong and they still find a way to win.
We all knew this day was close. Ali suffered with Parkinson’s disease for 32 years. Interestingly, it was his ability to take a punch that ultimately did him in. He spent the last ten years of his life in Scottsdale, Arizona. A part of all of us slipped away today. So, now Ali embarks on life’s last mystery. History will record the date of his death as Friday, June 3, 2016, in a Phoenix-area hospital. He died from septic shock, brought on by natural causes. He was but 74. The man himself, “Ali,” reminded us, “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.” A better fighter may come along one day, but Ali will always be “The Champ.”
One of my favorite writers, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, tells a wonderful story about Ali visiting a children’s hospital. While there, Ali speaks with a young boy who is dying of cancer. After they had spent a few minutes together, Ali said, “I’m going to beat George Foreman and you’re going to beat cancer. “No,” said the boy. “I’m going to meet God, and I’m going to tell him I know you.” I wonder what that little boy and Ali are talking about now.
Muhammad Ali once said, “The fame, the championships, the boxing, it’s all good, but it’s more important to treat people right and to worship God, and living a good life. It’s more important than just being a boxer and beating up people.” Some people just come along at the right time, and some of us never die. Their legend lives on through the ages. Ali’s legacy will always be a part of our history. It has been said that Ali whispered to George Foreman during their fight, “Is that all you got?” He’s whispering the same to all of us now.