“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”-Muhammad Ali
When it comes to athletes and legacy, there’s just one thing to really consider. What did you do for your sport and for every single kid or teenager who will eventually want to participate in that sport? Muhammad Ali inspired generations of boxers to be unlike any other fighter on the planet. He urged them to be unique, confident, and never shy away from the risks that life threw at you.
As Ali fought for his life Friday night at the age of 74-a fight he would eventually lose-I couldn’t help but think of one of his most famous quotes. Instinctively, I threw a spin on it and tweeted it out.
How about this for legacy? When it comes to boxing, Ali will always be mentioned first. He was the loud talking promo artist before Floyd Mayweather Jr. carved a career out of it. He was the man who stepped into the ring with the greats like George Foreman and Joe Frazier. Remember the Rumble in the Jungle? The documentary did it justice. For several rounds, Ali took all kinds of punishment from Foreman and suddenly turned the tables. He knocked Foreman out after a small sequence of precise punches. His brawls with Frazier were legendary, even if they were costly later on in Ali’s older age.
Ali fought for too long, falling on his sword instead of walking away when it was right. He burned out instead of drifting away, taking a pounding from Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick in his final two fights. He was 39 when he last fought. What people forget were the thrilling pair of fights he had with Leon Spinks and the three knockdown battles he had with Ken Norton.
Some will knock Ali for refusing to participate in the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs and his opposition to America’s involvement. Ali was born Cassius Clay and converted to Islam after he won the heavyweight title for the first time over Sonny Liston when he was just 22 years old. Sometimes, standing up for yourself brings you hate instead of acclaim. Ali fought through it and returned to boxing in 1970.
Ali would win 56 fights and only lose five. Consider the five fighters he lost to before lowering his legend. Frazier, Norton, Spinks, Holmes, and Berbick. He fought in a time where there was little politics around a fight. If two men wanted to get inside a ring and bash each other, it happened. Before you call Sugar Ray Leonard the best of all time, imagine if Sugar Ray lost the prime years of his career.
To Ali, boxing wasn’t just about throwing and ducking punches. It was an art form. He got inside a fighter’s head and danced around his subconscious for the weeks before and after the fight. If you beat him, it felt like robbery. If you lost to Ali, it felt like a train flew through the ring and stole your identity as a man. There will never be another Muhammad Ali because of what he did inside and outside the ring.
After he was done fighting, Ali would eventually become afflicted by Parkinson’s Disease. The man didn’t let it stop him from being a symbol for religious beliefs and standing up to opposition. It wasn’t a marketing ploy during his boxing career or after his fighting day were over. Ali even convinced Martin Luther King Jr. to speak up about the Vietnam War. He inspired people of many walks of life to stand up for their beliefs and never to be afraid of taking the risks.
Ali was never afraid to be himself and that’s why I respected him. I was born in 1982, two months and eight days after his last fight. All I had was video, stories, and knowledge from my dad on what he was and what he meant to the world of boxing. When I was a teenager, I saw a man with a terrible disease refuse to give up. As I grew up into a man, I never forgot what Ali taught so many. Be yourself, for better or worse because when the end does come and you sit on your bed wondering if you lived right, there will be no doubt.
He flocked to kids and loved teaching them about boxing. It could be his own kid or a little fan on the street and Ali wouldn’t fake a second. He knew where he came from and what had to be done in order to secure the future. He was a man of the people and fierce about his identity.
One of a kind gets thrown around a lot these days. Muhammad Ali was just that though. As my good friend and personal hero Frank Grillo said shortly after Ali’s death last night, “The world will never never see this again.”
You will never see this level of go for broke audacity or authenticity from another athlete and if you do it, it will pale in comparison. Ali didn’t just talk the talk. He walked it twice to make sure everybody knew he was serious and something special. If you cast him aside for his religious beliefs, then your own beliefs are as hollow as your insults towards him. He didn’t just wear a shirt with his beliefs on it. It was imprinted on his soul. For a man with little religious commitment, I can respect Ali’s passions outside the ring.
Muhammad Ali lived and died like a legend, moving his feet continuously and never giving in. Rest in peace, Champ. You were a constant tower of strength.
(In case you missed it on KSDK)