Until yesterday, I didn’t know much about Ali’s boxing career, opponents or his historic 1964 visit to Ghana. I had read about his feats in the sports sphere, but unfortunately cannot say much about his jabs, hooks, footwork, and lightning fast punches that earned him the tag “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” If you had asked me about the “Rumble in the Jungle” or his “Thrilla in Manila” with Joe Frazier, a blank stare would have been your response. What I am however is an admirer of Muhammad Ali – the activist, the teacher, the poet, the connector, and even more so after watching his 1977 Newcastle Interview (embedded below) and This Is Your Life guest appearance. Despite his supposed shortcomings, Muhammad Ali was a man with great self-awareness who stood for something. A man of principles and of action.
Muhammad Ali The Greatest
Muhammad Ali offers a masterclass in self-awareness and actualization. Friends and foe alike spoke about his confidence and somewhat boastful nature and he himself admits to having a big mouth. But nobody can deny that he backed it up. In one of his interviews he is asked why he has the audacity to predict the outcome of his fights. He responds that he works hard and he knows his science. Ali’s life reflects that of many others, people like Oprah Winfrey who from a very early age had a vision for what their life would (not) be:
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
How many of us would dare to define ourselves, regardless of what anyone else thinks? And even if we did, how many of us would dare to say it out loud, not once, not twice, but multiple times, again and again, in a time, country or situation that screams otherwise: I am [insert self-definition]. Yet Ali did so, at 12 years old no less. Ali’s confidence might seem cocky to many, but it also reflects a strength of identity, of self-awareness unlike any other. He knew who he was before he came to know who he was. And once he came to be who he thought himself to be, he shed the name Cassius Clay and never looked back, instead opting for a name he regarded as worthy of his being:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.'”
Muhammad Ali The Teacher
My first real encounter with Muhammad Ali, the teacher, was through an email forwarded to me on September 3, 2010 by my aunt. Subject heading: “Boxer Muhammad Ali’s advice to his daughter”. The email chain which had started on July 13 that same year outlined Hana Ali’s account of an incident with her father. Her sister and her had returned home from an evening out wearing “clothes that were not modest”, and after welcoming them in, her father took her aside and gave her some advice:
“Hana, everything that God made valuable in the world is covered and hard to get to. Where do you find diamonds? Deep down in the ground, covered and protected. Where do you find pearls? Deep down at the bottom of the ocean, covered up and protected in a beautiful shell. Where do you find gold? Way down in the mine, covered over with layers and layers of rock. You’ve got to work hard to get to them.” He looked at me with serious eyes. “Your body is sacred. You’re far more precious than diamonds and pearls, and you should be covered too.”
This might sound like a simple – and obvious – tale, but it meant a lot to 24-year old me because it had reason, an explanation, a logic to why one should dress decently beyond “you’re a woman” or “that’s how we do it”. Here was a logical explanation for covering up, beyond the ultimatums, directives or threats of punishment often issued to women and girls. The fact that it was coming from a boxer was incredulous to me at the time and that was the moment I started paying attention to his works outside the ring.
Years later, I came across this video of Muhammad Ali responding to a question on his plans after retirement. The video (below) is a must-see and his answer is probably one of the most poignant and elaborate exposés on the concepts of time, life, death and purpose:
“Life is real short. Add up all your traveling, add up all your sleeping, add up all your school, add up all your entertainment – you’ve probably been, half your life, doing nothing…Out of 30 years I might have about 16 years to be productive…What am I going to do in the next 16 years? What’s the best thing I can do? Get ready to meet God…When I get out of boxing, when I’m through, I’m going to do all I can to help people…God is watching me. God don’t praise me because I beat Joe Frazier, God don’t give nothing about Joe Frazier. God doesn’t care nothing about England or America as far as your wealth – it’s all his. He wants to know how do we treat each other? How we help each other?…When I die, if there’s a heaven, I want to see it.”
Muhammad Ali The Connector
Muhammad Ali was, first and foremost, a connector. Like Nelson Mandela, he was a leader and a teacher who transcended the human constructs of race, religion, class, privilege, age and so on. From his visit to then-Zaire to England to Ghana, he was a man who understood the concept of global citizenship and used his boxing, influence (and money) to connect with people. Sure, the boxing ring might have been his work space, but as he admits during a TV interview, it was his ability to connect people – even those who weren’t boxing fans – that made him the greatest:
“God has blessed me to attract more than just boxing fans. So therefore when I quit, boxing will still be there…but there will never be a fighter, I think, in our lifetime that can draw two billion people to watch a fight. There’s four billion people on the planet, and every time Muhammad Ali steps into the ring, two billion people watch the actual fight or the rerun and they are conscious of the results..People who never followed fights, follow my fights. When I’m finished, that will be finished.”
Ali’s ability to connect also transcending into more contentious areas like religion and inter-faith living. Many of his interviews portray a deeply spiritual man who was able to make religious philosophy and thinking practical. For him, religion (Islam) was his platform for teaching about life and connecting people as he stresses in his Newcastle interview:
“Religion is a touchy thing…All of them are right, all of them are from God, all of them are good, teach good. It’s just the people and the titles that make you prejudiced. There’s one God but there are many roads to that God, you understand…You see me do this and call me the Greatest – that’s because I’m more religious than I am physical and I study a lot. And you may be surprised if you hear me talk because you never heard me talk this way – I got about 45 lectures that I memorized in my ministry and I can tell you something about all the religious books, all the religions, because I’m a strong believer in God and humanity…That’s why God blesses me to be so great here because all the time I’ve been here, I’ve been talking about God…I’m always giving the praise to God, that’s why I’m as great as I am in this physical world, because I push Him first.”
Muhammad Ali The Activist & Poet
These days, it’s difficult to actually take a clear stance on issues precisely because the world (and interests) are more connected. Many people would rather swim with the tide and avoid the rough waters that come with going against it. But not Muhammad Ali, he was your bonafide activist.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
He took up the cause of Black America alongside legends like Malcolm X and never failed to highlight that there was much work to be done to improve the plight of America’s black community. In 1967, he was called to fight for America in the Vietnam war, which he refused, risking legal repercussions for draft evasion – a $10,000 fine, jail time, getting de-belted and a ban from leaving the country for three years – and backlash from a society which probably found his assertions unacceptable:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end.”
More recently, Ali spoke publicly about the recent terror attacks and implication of Islam following the 2015 Paris attacks and despite his failing health:
“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world. True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so-called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”
From the many interviews I’ve watched in the last day or so, it is clear Ali was a great spokesperson – one who used wit, charm and humor to draw his audience in. While many sports pundits probably know him for his clever taunts against his opposed both before, during and after his fights, I hadn’t a clue about just how well he made clockwork of words both inside and outside the ring, until I came across his poetry. This one in particular, dubbed “The Greatest”, is a telling work of art:
“This is the legend of Cassius Clay,
The most beautiful fighter in the world today.
He talks a great deal, and brags indeed-y,
of a muscular punch that’s incredibly speed-y.
The fistic world was dull and weary,
But with a champ like Liston, things had to be dreary.
Then someone with color and someone with dash,
Brought fight fans are runnin’ with Cash.
This brash young boxer is something to see
And the heavyweight championship is his des-tin-y.
This kid fights great; he’s got speed and endurance,
But if you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
This kid’s got a left; this kid’s got a right,
If he hit you once, you’re asleep for the night.
And as you lie on the floor while the ref counts ten,
You’ll pray that you won’t have to fight me again.
For I am the man this poem’s about,
The next champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
This I predict and I know the score,
I’ll be champ of the world in ’64.
When I say three, they’ll go in the third,
10 months ago
So don’t bet against me, I’m a man of my word.
He is the greatest! Yes!
I am the man this poem’s about,
I’ll be champ of the world, there isn’t a doubt.
Here I predict Mr. Liston’s dismemberment,
I’ll hit him so hard; he’ll wonder where October and November went.
When I say two, there’s never a third,
Standin against me is completely absurd.
When Cassius says a mouse can outrun a horse,
Don’t ask how; put your money where your mouse is!
I AM THE GREATEST!”
Like all of us, Muhammad Ali probably had his foibles and weaknesses. But all those notwithstanding, it’s undeniable that he has left an indelible mark in history and that his name will forever remain one of the greatest. How will you remember Muhammad Ali? Share in the comments below. May he rest in perfect peace.
Written by Jemila Abdulai. Graphic Design: Nana Osei. Photos by Michael Gaffney unless otherwise indicated.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.