Muhammad Ali: The True Definition of Success and Celebrity

Muhammad Ali shakes the hand of a youngster during a dinner in the former champ's honor at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston, Maine,
Muhammad Ali shakes the hand of a youngster during a dinner in the former champ's honor at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston, Maine, Friday, Sept. 22, 1995. Ali is in Maine for the 30th anniversary of his historic knockout of Sonny Liston which occurred in Lewiston. (AP Photo/Carl D. Walsh)

When Muhammad Ali refused to take the oath of induction into the U.S. Army in 1967 in Houston, Texas, he became a hero to those that were against the war, but he also became toxic to many that were in favor of it and even to some of those in the mainstream. I was only a pre-teen at the time, but I was caught in the magic of a man who had achieved the ultimate goal of becoming the heavyweight champion of the world, and with all the perks that came with it, this champ took a stand and risked it all. At a time when boxing was the dominant sport in American culture, he turned away from the endorsements, movie roles, television opportunities and more that come along with being such a huge celebrity. But Ali became an even bigger hero in my eyes and in the eyes of much of the world. Those ethics, that conviction and that undeniable courage were what defined Ali and took his heroism to new heights. He changed the definition of success and stardom; he was the greatest both inside and outside of the ring.

Ali's decision to take such a strong stance against the war came during an era of high involvement and struggles for civil rights, women's rights, the environment and of course opposition to the war. As I went into my teenage years, I consciously judged celebrities by their relevance, their values and their position on issues as opposed to their possessions. The trappings of success appeared gaudy, narcissistic and self-indulgent; what one did with his or her celebrity is what truly mattered. As I got to know Ali in my late teen years and through the rest of his life, and worked with him on various things and enjoyed his support on others, I observed that he never stopped being both a global figure who stood for something and had resolute beliefs, and one who was personable with whomever he encountered.

As this three-time world champion boxer is being remembered, lauded and applauded after his passing, I argue that not only did his superior skills in a fight make him stand alone, but it was his substantive and unselfish existence that served to redefine what celebrities should be honored for and therefore made him the global phenomenon that he was and remains even upon his death.

Let us not forget that Muhammad Ali was one of the most despised odious figures in the United States because he stood for his beliefs with great sacrifice and loss including being convicted of a felony, sent to jail, stripped of his title, wealth and popularity. Yet he never flinched -- earning him the respect of both friend and foe over a period of time. He outlasted his critics and proved to be correct on the issues he gave everything up for. He was on the right side of history and the history books should judge him correctly.

Even after suffering with Parkinson's disease, when Ali lit that Olympic torch in 1996 with trembling hands and body, he was a man who fought to change the meaning of things, and move beyond the boundaries of submission -- even to his own physical frailties. Isn't it ironic that we are in an era now where celebrities have so many more material possessions that they appear cheap and worthless when you think of a man like Ali who was measured not by what he accumulated but by what he gave away for what he believed? Celebrities and success should be judged by what you give and risk, not by what you have and grab. No one personified that in global culture more than Ali.

I was blessed to have been on several continents with him, and whether it was the Caribbean, Africa, the United States or elsewhere, he loved people -- and they loved him. He would be running into crowds, signing autographs, kissing babies, giving hugs and taking pictures. Unlike celebrities of today that pride themselves on how to hide from the public, Ali couldn't be stopped from immersing himself with the people. No security could stop him from taking a picture, no manager could stop him from telling stories and doing magic tricks, and no one could stop him from talking with his fans.

In all of the deserving eulogies we give to this tremendous role model, let us not forget that he changed forever how a person should be measured, emulated or looked up to. Every time an athlete or an artist takes a stand today, that is also part of the Ali legacy. Whenever I watched a basketball player, or any other athlete or celebrity put on a hoodie to honor young Trayvon Martin, or a t-shirt that read "I Can't Breathe" in remembrance of the injustice Eric Garner suffered, I was reminded that it brings us back to Ali.

Those that celebrate their achievements by flashing piles of money on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or elsewhere may get likes, but they will be forgotten almost as soon as they post. Muhammad Ali will be remembered for years, decades and maybe even centuries not only because he could "float like a butterfly, sting like bee", but because he was immovable and stood tall, strong and alone sometimes outside the ring.

I have no doubt that my friend will rest in peace because having spent over 40 years knowing him, I can say unequivocally that he lived in peace.