On the evening of Friday, June 3rd, the world lost something it has never seen the likes of, and may never see the likes of again when larger-than-life icon Muhammad Ali succumbed to long time illness at age 74. When you look back at the life and journey of Muhammad Ali, present were many tales of everything from the good, the bad, and the ugly. In the lives of all the ‘greats’, there’s always one pivotal moment that seemed to be the catalyst in bringing them to a stage in which they’d one day fully conquer. For Michael Jordan, it was being cut on the varsity basketball team.
For Mike Tyson, it was a rainy day in Brooklyn when the youngster was confronted by a local bully who decided to snap the neck of one of his coveted pigeons. Frantic and in a panic, yet initially afraid, Tyson was prompted by his sister not to “just stand there”, but to “fight that mutha******”! Without prompt or pause, the young Tyson would pounce in a rage, attacking the bully, displaying his first sign of invincibility. That moment of invincibility would later evolve to a level of greatness that would allow him to become the youngest Heavyweight Champion in the history of the sport, grabbing the prestigious crown at the tender age of 20.
In the case of Muhammad Ali, it was also a rainy day that served as the ‘seed’ for his eventual rise to stardom. In 1954, at age 12, Ali was seen teary eyed and clearly frustrated after realizing someone stole his Christmas gift given to him from his Dad, which was a shiny red Schwinn Bicycle. As he stood around asking a few questions, one Police officer in the right place at the right time would change his life forever. Upon informing the officer that his bike had been stolen and that he was going to “whup” the person who stole it, officer Joe Elsby Martin told Ali, “you’d better learn to fight before you start fighting”.
After writing out the report, Officer Martin informed Ali that there was “boxing every night”, and gave him the application to join the boxing gym. In Ali’s own words, after he ran downstairs to the gym, “the sights, sounds, and smell excited [him] so much” that he “forgot about the bicycle”. In an immediate moment of transformation, he said that “the smell of rubbing alcohol and sweat, and a feeling of awe come over [him] immediately”. From that moment on his destiny was formed! The first time he laced up, a bloodied nose and badly beaten face served as reminder that this was no place for the weak.
Despite that beating he took, what stood out most to Officer Martin was the fact that no matter how bad Ali appeared, he “stuck to it”. That desire to stick to it and overcome his flaws in an effort to rise would become the template of his DNA. When he started, he wasn’t the fastest, he wasn’t particularly the strongest, and he was far from the best in the gym, let alone the world. But a sheer desire to elevate himself above all personal flaws or any man made laws (segregation, etc) was truly a rite of passage for the young Ali. In 1960, he would win the Gold medal in the Olympic Games, and from there, his evolution as a boxer, and his story as we know it was in full motion.
When we look at the story of Muhammad Ali, it’s easy to narrow down the path to what made him a boxer, but what about the humanitarian side? Where did that come from? His life story was flooded with acts of good will, but where was that ‘stolen bicycle’ moment that would generate the unparalleled love we later witnessed which allowed him to serve mankind? No account of his life story seems to bear the answer, but the closest known element to shed light on this topic probably also goes back to his childhood. A young Ali would cry for nights and nights at a time in sheer disbelief and limited understanding as to why his race had to suffer?
In the ring, Ali’s style was to infuse key elements of a smaller fighter (speed, movement, defense, etc); with the key elements of a bigger fighter (power, strength, etc). Outside of the ring, he also adopted a dual blueprint to conquer mankind. Despite being more centered in the vision of Malcolm X (heavy resistance) than that of Martin Luther King Jr. (peaceful protest); Ali’s mindset was grounded in a quest to stand up for what he believed while also finding a way to merge the two colliding worlds. Many sports and news pundits will talk about his decision to “dodge the draft” without ever truly analyzing the purpose behind his decision.
Here stood a man who was part of a culture that was not accepted in it’s own land. Unable to carry out the simple task of drinking from a certain water fountain, Ali realized at an early age that there was only one way to rise above the hatred he witnessed. That way was to simply take a stand when those around him struggled to find a seat. A man of peace, his decision was to fight back against those that oppressed him, rather than taking orders to kill those who were fighting for some of the same rights in their own homeland. He had the resources to flee the country or “make a run”. But just like his mentality in the ring, he opted to stand firm and fight outside of it.
Boxing was what brought Muhammad Ali to the spotlight, but it didn’t take the world long to realize that he was more than just another man with a pair of fast hands. From one corner of the earth to the other, since his death, stories about his humanitarian side have fallen like Summer rain. There was the foreclosed home that he purchased, only return it to the Jewish family who had just lost it due to uncontrollable conditions. There was the time when he talked a potential suicide victim off the ledge when local law enforcement agents and others had presumably “run out of options”. Despite failing health, there was still enough sharpness in his mind to negotiate the release of troops held by Saddam Hussein.
The ultimate irony in the life of Muhammad Ali was that despite a tough battle with Parkinson’s disease that spanned more than 3 decades, the chapters of his story written between ages 16 and 39 contain more greatness than any athlete, entertainer, or political icon this world has ever encountered. That legacy was built one autograph at a time….with several rehearsed poetic lines….a flashy smile that remains stuck in our minds….and a heart filled with love that was blind. Many stars have come, and many stars will go, but only one this special can you marvel, yet never know. He is the one, he is the only, he is THE GREATEST! May he rest in eternal peace….
(Vivek “Vito” Wallace can be heard on via live radio broadcast every Wednesday night on “DEEPER – Around the World of Sports, News, & Entertainment”. He can be contacted at 754.307.7747, or readers can follow him on Twitter (@lefthooklounge1), and Facebook).