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Muhammad Ali: The Consummate Champion

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(AP Photo/John Amis, File). FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2005, file photo, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, left, jokingly holds up two fingers behind the head of his daughter, Laila Ali. (AP Photo/John Amis, File). FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2005, file photo, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali, left, jokingly holds up two fingers behind the head of his daughter, Laila Ali.

What is the true definition of a champion? Is there really only one? Perhaps there is. However, one might tell you one that doesn’t match someone else’s reasoning. I like to believe that a champion is one who conquers his own challenges, follows it up by stepping into a proverbial “ring” to square off against other individuals who are perfecting their craft, so to speak and then one is left after defeating all that have blocked his/her way. You can be talented, but you can’t just be talented to succeed in life. You need an ego and some sort of edge to help stick out like a sore thumb and get people to notice you. Cassius Clay, a.k.a. Muhammad Ali, was that and much more to swaths and legions of sports fans, and normal people walking the streets of everyday life. Muhammad Ali died Friday, June 3, and the whole world, not just the sports world, mourned as one big collective. It’s hard to find someone who did not look to up him as a champion.

We all look up to a champion of sorts in more ways than one. We look up to our heroes, leaders, and others of the sort to help keep some sense of what’s possible to achieve in our lives. A young man who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, wanted to be the best boxer that ever lived. Did he have any idea that his legacy would be what it was, is, and forever will be? I don’t think so, but I didn’t grow up with him. So, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not here to recap Ali’s boxing career. You probably know by now that Ali was arguably the best that ever roamed this planet. You probably know he had the ego the size of these great United States. You probably know he battled Parkinson’s disease for the last 25 years or so of his illustrious life. These characteristics are important as well as a few other things I will note in the coming paragraphs.

Anyone who has ever played sports, or had the capability to draw from sports metaphors, could always turn to Muhammad Ali. He was able His finest examples included gems such as, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can't hit what the eyes can't see;” “I’m so mean I make medicine sick;” “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life;” and “I’m the greatest!”

Living in today’s world, if anyone were to utter the words that they were the best at whatever they did for a living, we are programmed and designed and immediately demanding some sort of proof. Our naked cynicism proves to be the foundation for proving and disproving theories or claims of any kind. Whatever happened to us taking people at their words and letting their actions, or inactions, prove himself/herself wrong. I’m a big proponent of “the way toward success begins with failure.” To put it simply is just like the previous sentence, or what I told one of my best friends the morning after hearing about Ali’s death: “the thing with (him) was not only his greatness as an athlete but the effect he had on society, from his conversion to being an anti-war protester. An athlete today would never do anything like this, minus saying that he/she is the best ever. Ali did so without backing down to any one person or entity. Anytime anyone says anything that could be misconstrued as offensive/controversial to any other person/entity, it seems one must backtrack and provide explanation with context. Ali said what he felt and thought with zero reservation and explanation.”

I’m not one who follows politics or world news very much, but I know that Ali stood up for what he felt was right in dodging the draft during the Vietnam War. When our country was engaging in a war with Vietnam, obviously there were reasons to believe we should invade and make a statement. Ali, for his own reasons, stood up for what he believed was the right thing to do and not fight a war that was rendered pointless to fight in the end. He knew it at that time, and he was proven correct upon our pulling out of Vietnam. He found ways to make the money he was missing out on after being fined, (tentatively) sent to jail – before the Supreme Court reversing the decision – and losing his passport. This is one particular mark of a champion that I’ve noted throughout the years. Even after one proclaims himself/herself as the greatest and is knocked down by what seems like a knockout punch, he/she gets back up and resumes life as if nothing ever fazed him/her. It’s truly remarkable and admirable.

In the midst of Ali voicing his opinion and standing up for dodging the draft, which at that time, and in hindsight because I was not alive when that war was happening, I feel he made the right choice. I truly admire the athletes that stood by his side at the “Ali Summit” in opposition of the Vietnam War. You look at the likes of Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and wonder if someone even remotely tried to voice against an atrocity of sorts. I’m trying to leave the race card out of this because I don’t want to sink to that level. Today’s equivalent would be the likes of LeBron James, Steph Curry, Cam Newton and Floyd Mayweather speaking out about police brutality or something else that may afflict them on a daily basis. I’m not saying they have those stances but instead drawing a modern-day comparison. Just because you disagree with a war does not make you a traitor to your country or any less of a patriot than you already are. He chose to abstain from joining the U.S. military and did his time since it was against the law to avoid the draft. We live with every decision we make throughout our lives and we are who we are because of those decisions. Why are we to judge someone else for an opinion they have? Another classic quote from Ali was as followed: "I am America," he once said. "I am the part you won't recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me." A lot of what Ali is was along the lines of truer words never being spoken.

Now, say what you will about President Barack Obama and his policies and actions since being inaugurated back in 2009. His time is coming to an end and some are sad to see him go, and some are ready to crown the next “champion” to reside in the White House. However you may feel about our nation’s 44th president, it’s hard to argue against what he and his wife, First Lady Michelle Obama, wrote in a joint statement following the champ’s death: “He stood…up when it was hard; spoke out when others wouldn’t. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title and his public standing. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right, make him reviled, and nearly send him to jail. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us get used to the America we recognize today.” As you know in reading my blog entries, I have constantly stated, and will not lay off in doing so, how proud I am to be a part of this great country in the United States. A man like Muhammad Ali, as President Obama so eloquently spoke of him, and his victories prove that we should never lose sight of how awesome this country is. Like Ali, it’s not perfect. It’s capable of shaking up the world and the world is better for it. Do we have some things we need to work on? Absolutely! However, a man like Ali was a walking example of even the greatest who handcuffed lightning and thrown thunder into jail are still human and have extremely difficult obstacles to overcome on a daily basis. It’s how we conduct ourselves after getting up from being knocked down.

Moving on to a less-serious tone about the legacy of Muhammad Ali… I absolutely loved his personality when he wasn’t in the ring. His cockiness proved to be not only unique but a catalyst for a number of iconic moments throughout sports history. Some of the hilarious images showed him using a fine-toothed comb on the hair of Howard Cosell prior or even challenging Cosell to fight him on the television airwaves; creating an image of knocking out The Beatles in one demonstrative yet fake punch; and even his personality, image and brand probably helped promote and create the behemoths of World Wrestling Entertainment and Mixed Martial Arts. These are guys getting paid to act as if they’re professional fighters, talk trash and egg on the other competitors and create storylines like they’re in a movie. It’s hilarious when you think about it, because Ali was one man who took the world by storm when he acted the way he did, talked the way he did, and worked the way he worked.
Above all else, I love, without question, the humility that Ali displayed following his boxing career. There was never a man who was able to reach the mountaintop in the fashion he did and still maintain some sense of modesty when it was all said and done. Two quotes that really ring true to me are as follows: “Live every day like it’s your last, because someday you’re going to be right,” and, “What I suffered physically was worth what I’ve accomplished in life. A man who is not courageous enough to take risks will never accomplish anything in life.” You seriously do not have to be a fan of sports, let alone boxing, to appreciate these pearls of wisdom. We must take control of our lives and live them to the absolute fullest. Otherwise, they will feel like a waste.
This man was an icon among icons. I’m paraphrasing, but as the former legendary sportswriter Dick Schaap once wrote about Ali, even at his most boring, Ali was more interesting than the majority of the people in the world. He never had false humility and one image that most certainly comes to my mind is as iconic as the man himself. When the 1996 Summer Olympics took place in Atlanta, Ali was asked, and most graciously accepted, to light the torch to complete the opening ceremonies and begin the summer Olympiad. It’s very difficult to put into words the feelings I had when witnessing that event live on television, but the effect that has had on me will continue throughout my life. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to witness another moment like it, and in turn, the world and I will never be able to live vicariously through the great life of Muhammad Ali. He was a giant among giants, a legend among legends, and, simply, the greatest athlete I’ve ever read about, considering everything he’s done and everything that’s been written about him. I will miss him dearly. Rest in everlasting peace, champ!

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