I physically felt the passing of Muhammad Ali. The news was like a pounding strike on the base drum of my soul that brought me back over two decades in time. The first decade of my life was extremely confusing. I didn’t feel connected to anything. Nothing in this world had ever touched my soul.
Then I moved to New Orleans with my Aunt & Uncle who desperately wanted to help me become grounded. They wanted to give me something that I could call my own. After trying many things, my Uncle showed me something that I would never forget.
My first boxing match.
I can’t remember who was fighting. It may have been Sugar Ray Leonard coming out of retirement. Or maybe it was Roy Jones, Jr. at the beginning of his prime. Or maybe it was a rookie-esque Oscar de la Hoya. I don’t remember the details of that first fight. But, the memory of the connection I felt has stayed with me forever for one clear reason — boxing was the first thing that captivated my mind and touched my soul at the same time.
One of my first positive memories in life was of me and my uncle watching boxing matches. Boxing was my first love. My first real connection to anything outside of myself and my family. I was intrigued only by the boxers that were extremely articulate. I have always gravitated to people that were very well-spoken. Lucky for me, that meant that I wasn’t overwhelmed by boxers that caught my attention. There were a select few that fit the bill.
Naturally, the one that had the strongest hold on me was Muhammad Ali. He was the one that every commentator, fighter, and promoter referenced. Boxers are always compared to each other to see how they “measure up”. Before each match there is a brief segment called the “Tale of the Tape” in which the commentators compare the fighters’ height, weight, fighting records, and other statistics. But, when it comes to the entire sport of boxing, Muhammad Ali is the measuring tape against which all fighters are measured.
All fighters will always come up short. No fighter will ever compare.
Even though I would never be able to see him fight live, I still loved and respected the platform Ali had established. After I watched my first few fights, my soul said it needed more. So, I in the days when having a computer in your home was a luxury but dial-up quickly humbled you, I went looking for videos and articles about Muhammad Ali. All my research made one thing very clear : Muhammad Ali didn’t ever apologize for being Muhammad Ali. He was clearly in touch with who he was and what he brought to the table.
The way he courageously opened the minds of reporters, sternly corrected the sports writers that were blinded by his confidence, and emphatically empowered his fans was more than I could stand. I quickly became more than just obsessed. I became impressed. His dedication to his craft, his confidence in himself and, most importantly, his courageous fight to stand up for his values, faith, and morals were all things that I needed to emulate immediately.
Over the years as I dove deeper and deeper into my connection to the sport that Ali brought to the world, I learned quite a few things.
1. Don’t change, shorten or otherwise adjust your name to make it easier for anyone.
I didn’t need to answer questions like: Why do you have so many names? If you’re parents are from Texas why did they give you an African name? I owe no one any answers. What’s important is that I’m proud of the fact that my parents thought of a way to remind me of my pre-slavery west African roots.
We can’t directly control how we are addressed in this world but we can control how we respond. Just because people don’t understand our history doesn’t mean that we have to conform to what they do understand. People are smart; they can learn to open their minds. And if they aren’t open to learning just pretend you are Ali having a heated debate with Howard Cosell. Remember your purpose and be sarcastic with the other person until they buckle or its time to change the subject.
2. Defend yourself at all times.
Hence why my aunt and uncle bought me pink boxing gloves. I did really well with my training and it even came in handy a few times when I really needed to defend myself physically. But I also learned that I could defend myself with my words and actions.
If you watch the exchanges between Ali and reporters that were not as playful and understanding as Cosell, you can see the importance of being a quick-thinking advocate for yourself. Ali was dealt quite a few bad hands by the media. People didn’t want to accept his religious-based decision to change his name. People also didn’t want to respect his religious-based decision to abstain from war. At the end of the day, whether speaking on his own behalf, submitting appellate briefs to the Supreme Court, or raising awareness for Parkinson’s research, Muhammad Ali is a great example of advocacy. Our lives and our beliefs are worth defending.
3. Knowledge and conviction are the most powerful keys of life.
Muhammad Ali was a brilliant student of boxing. He derived much of his power over other fighters by understanding all of the basic and traditional possibilities in the ring. Once he understood them, he exploited these possibilities in his favor. Ali was also a devout student of Islam. Over the course of many years, he committed time to understanding himself, his faith, and his role in the world. The result of this dedication was the evolution of quite a wise man.
Life doesn’t stop when you finish school or when you reach a certain milestone. Continuing to learn about the world is one of the main things that made Muhammad Ali into the great man we have just lost. Pairing knowledge with conviction is what lead Ali to achieve numerous things that have never been done before, including being the heavy weight champion three times. Learn as much as you can and become are sure as you can be about what you know while understanding that you can never know everything. Alternatively, conviction without knowledge is a recipe for disaster.
So when we think about the life of The Greatest of All Time, let’s not get stuck on the sadness of his transition. And let’s not just post some obligatory image or quote on social media. Let’s remember the path Ali forged in this world. If we have anything “different” about us whether it’s our name, religion, or physical ability, let’s remember Muhammad Ali as evidence that we can change lives, open hearts, and unite the world just by being true to ourselves and what we believe.