It was never about boxing. Even The Greatest would admit that truth. But the boxing helped to make him a folk hero – something larger than life. The boxing enabled him to move into the living rooms and hearts of so many people. Something that would have been especially difficult for a black man at that time to accomplish.
Yet he did.
He spoke out. He spoke his mind – even when it wasn’t popular. He was polarizing. Some thought he was too brash, too bold, too loud. Some thought he was so loud because the silence of so many was deafening. He refused to let others define him. In the book of life he boldly held the pen and dared anyone to even think about writing on the lines of his book. He scribed his own lines, his own name, his own story, and in so doing he shook up the World.
I have watched countless documentaries, clips, movies, and read numerous books about him. I’m not expert, with each piece of history it almost became harder and harder to believe that he was real. He was not perfect, and he would admit many of his shortcomings – he was pretty honest that way, but he was no less than incredible. Perhaps the perfect flawed individual unafraid to stand in the spotlight, with all his flaws, step up to the mic and speak his mind.
He was also a kind soul. Yes, he was fierce in the ring, and, at times, cruel to opponents, but if there was one thing that I learned in my exposure to his life was that at the bottom of it all – he cared.
I got to see him once in person. I attended the Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati some years ago. Before the game, they rolled out several icons from the Civil Rights era – Hank Aaron, a comedian, and Muhammed Ali. When Ali’s cart rolled out, the crowd erupted. Chants of “Ali! Ali! Ali!” made me feel as though I was front row at The Rumble in the Jungle. Though physically he was limited, when he acknowledged the crowd with a soft wave, it erupted even louder. The chants were deafening. It brought chills and goose bumps to me, as I found myself standing and chanting, pumping my fist like everyone else. I was witnessing Greatness.
I have had a picture or poster of him in my classroom for many, many years now. There are two interactions that stick out. The first was a former colleague who saw his picture, shrugged and simply called him a “draft dodger”. I didn’t engage in a conversation or discussion with him. I just let it go. I probably shouldn’t have, but I did. If you know anything about the Vietnam incident (which included a decision by the Supreme Court), Ali did anything but dodge the draft. He faced that challenge like so many others – head on.
The second interaction was with a student, an African-American girl, who looked at the poster and said, “Is that Mike Tyson?” I think my face paled because she shrugged and kind of laughed. I called her back to my desk and asked her, “You don’t know who Muhammed Ali is?”
She shrugged again with a smiled, and simply said, “No.”
I walked her over to my bookshelf and picked up a book (that our curriculum had just adopted as an independent read) and handed it to her. I simply said “Read it.”
She took the book. What she didn’t know is that I also emailed her parents mainly because I had a good relationship with the family and figured they would find it kind of funny – not because I was trying to get her in trouble. I told them that she thought Ali was Tyson and that I had given her a book. What I didn’t realize was that I had stirred up a whole learning opportunity for her at home.
The next day the student came to my room and said, “Thanks a lot for emailing my parents. My parents were so upset with me that my dad made me watch YouTube videos about Ali all night, they are forcing me to read this book, and they are getting more books for me.” She said all this with a sarcastic smile.
She later admitted to me that her parents weren’t actually mad and that Ali was “pretty cool” and now understood why he was so important. Her parents also thanked me for emailing them. It was a cool teachable moment for them.
And maybe that is the crux of it. Do we have heroes like this alive today? Heroes willing to sacrifice the prime of their professional career in order to prove a point? “Celebrity” heroes willing to defend not only themselves, but others? Or do we focus more on which Celebrity selfie gets the most likes instead of the common individual who is less concerned with self and more intent on helping others?
I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is that I, we, lost a hero today. He was “pretty cool” and “important”. And his story is worth sharing with our kids today. He was far from perfect, but he was The Greatest.
RIP Muhammed Ali. You are still, and will forever be, The Greatest.