If you don’t know who Muhammad Ali is, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, then you have missed one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest hero adventures on the entire planet.  I am saddened at his death.  I remember with pain and respect the torch lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta as he lit the Olympic flame, frail and rickety, and yet defiant – as he always was – to the very end.  I suspect it was at this moment, when the flame burst into life, that the nation, no, the world, finally fell madly in love with the gentle giant of a man who used his life as a weapon for justice, equality and the dignity of all human beings everywhere.  What he was telling America and the world in Atlanta, was that despite his infirmities, despite the ravages that Parkinson’s had wrecked upon his once perfect body, despite no longer having the ability to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” he was still the Champ, still “The Greatest,” still the champion of human rights, still the provocative spokesman who never yielded to the pressures of racism, still the man who simply would not let society, us, ignore him.   I cannot tell you how much I both respect and admire this larger than life man who never yielded to the taunts and oppressions that he faced throughout his professional career and his life. 

The facts of Muhammad Ali’s life and his rise to the pinnacle of the boxing world, are well known.  But perhaps the greatest story of The Greatest, is his lifelong dedication to the righting of societal wrongs perpetrated against him, African Americans and the world’s oppressed everywhere.  His banter with his adversaries, his battles with the Federal Government, his life-long quest to enshrine and solidify the natal dignity and value of African Americans was unlike any other such life campaign in American history.   Not, of course, that it was a “campaign”  at all in his mind.  He was only being Ali, The Greatest, as he called himself.  To Ali it was simply the rightness of his cause, the universal struggle for human rights that motivated him in the face of  the most vicious attacks on him and his cause that White America could muster against him. 

But two decades before that heartbreaking and heartrending Olympic flame lighting ceremony, I fell in love with the man.  I had the honor and privilege to have run into Ali one day as I was crossing the quad of Howard University here in Washington, D.C.  I was on my way to the Administration Building to correct some stupid affront to my dignity (I think it was over my lack of 3 credits for graduation) that was entirely forgettable.  As I made my way to the Dean’s Office, there was a group of maybe 50 students ranged around Ali as he stood on the steps of the Admin Building that I had to skirt since my mission had nothing to do with boxing champ Muhammad Ali but had much to do with the mindless bureaucracy of the university.  After (successfully) pleasing my case, when I exited the building I was confronted with a crowd out front that now numbered in the hundreds.  I stopped.  I began listening to what Ali was saying and from that point on I was a die-hard Muhammad Ali lover and supporter.  I don’t even remember what the hell he was saying but his words so moved me that day that I simply could not walk away.  I was hooked.  It was as if his voice had chained me to the ground and there was nothing I could do to free myself from their iron grip. 

I stood mesmerized among the crowd of onlookers listening to the champ as he described his upbringing, his battles, his beliefs, his struggles to achieve dignity for himself and for the world’s downtrodden.   I recognized the awesome power of his charismatic delivery on the steps of that campus building with none of the accouterments that we associate with such public figures today.  Without so much as the benefit of a microphone, Ali was speaking of the very best of what makes America a beacon of hope and why it was that his struggle, his battles, were the struggle not only of African Americans, but of America and the world as a whole.   It was an amazing performance from someone who had been derided, called a traitor, a fraud by the nation, yet it wasn’t a performance at all.  It was simply The Champ speaking from his heart.

I admit that from that day forward, I was a lifelong Muhammad Ali devotee.  I cannot tell you why or how the man simply captured my soul and the souls of the several hundreds of onlookers who were listening to him that sunny, nondescript day so many years ago, but there is no doubt in my mind that his words resonated so profoundly in my very being that his impact could not be denied.  And that, folks, is the reason why I remain a die hard Muhammad Ali fan and include him in the panoply of American heroes alongside John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. among our national heroes who changed our society for the better.  There is no way that his love of people, for all people, everywhere, can be denied. 

As Muhammad Ali defied Federal authority, as he forged his path to boxing glory (a blood sport I particularly loathe, by the way), as he used his “big mouth” to sway public opinion, what remains in his personal quest for freedom and equality is the unassailable fact that Muhammad Ali changed the discussion of what it means to be a patriotic American and what it means to be a human being.  His switch to Islam at the time was considered merely a dodge to prevent his induction into the hated Viet Nam War and a traitorous action, but he stood proud and defiant in the face of public approbations and near universal condemnation.  But “The Mouth” wasn’t finished by a long shot.  His doubters, his detractors, the naysayers and the ridiculers were all proved wrong about The Mouth, time and time and time again.  He was the genuine article.  He was always and forever The Champ he bragged endlessly about being.  He was the man who, even when disease had silenced him, was not to be denied.  He was the man who stole my heart on a random sunny day, in a chance encounter that turned me into a believer, moved me to tears, and forever made me realize that beneath even loud, combative, mouthy, bloodsport boxers can lurk a grand human being of the highest order. 

He was The Greatest.  And always will be. 


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