I recently had the privilege to watch Ken Burns’ four-episode documentary on Muhammad Ali. It was an exceptional accounting of the Champ by chronicling his life from the beginning of his boxing career as a young man to his final days of being ravaged by Parkinson’s disease. The series brought back so many memories of the braggadocios young man of the 60s who went on to represent the USA in the 1960 Olympics’. He left the games with a gold medal and high hopes yet, when he returned to his hometown, he was refused service at a restaurant that served only white patrons. Heartbroken and angry, he threw his medal into the Ohio River. Fueled by anger and ambition to become a World Champion, he set his sights on his journey. Ali was supported by a group of investors that interestingly were all white, and he partnered up with Angelo Dundee as his trainer. The rest became history. His relationship with Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam set him on a course that would catapult him beyond the realms of boxing.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, he accepted the teaching of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad of the Nation of Islam. His name changed to Muhammad Ali at the dismay of many, not only in the sports community but the world at large. Ali revealed his decision to change his name shortly after winning the championship from Sonny Liston and was immediately challenged for doing so. The change of his name followed him with his second fight with Liston and then with Ernie Terrell. Terrell addressed the issue of disrespect he felt regarding his name. The whole point that no one seemed to realize was that Muhammad stood for something in his faith. As a Muslim, he simply wanted to be treated accordingly.
The older generation considered him as a brash and arrogant young man who did not appreciate his status in life and could not wait to see someone annihilate him in the ring. The youth of the era admired his approach to success. Ali was never a lackey boy, never a pacifist, but deliberate in his demeanor and always speaking his mind. He was a catalyst for change, whether he knew it at the time. His refusal to fight in an unpopular war and the impact it had on him, and his family, was a low point for him. Ali was not one to sulk and keep things hidden but chose to speak publicly about his decision to not fight in Vietnam on college campuses and media outlets. Over a span of years, the world began to embrace Ali, and it became clear he was becoming larger in life. His resurgence as a champion became something that legends are made of.
When it was revealed that Muhammad Ali was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, it was devastating to watch. The world’s hearts were broken when it became apparent that his skills as a boxer were declining. He, on the other hand, accepted his fate and approached his battle with the disease as his greatest fight ever. His lighting the torch at the 1984 Olympic Games was mesmerizing to those who watched the ceremony. After that day, he continued to make public appearances as well and traveled the world as an ambassador for change. He met with Saddam Hussein and aided in the release of 15 American hostages from Iraq. His persona at that juncture was now greater than any one person on the planet. But he stayed humble, always advocating for peace.
When Muhammad passed, a little something died in all of us. He had crossed generations and, with each move forward, impacted someone along the way. Many of us found ourselves immersed with introspection on how we too can initiate change for the better. The world mourned as if a piece of its soul had died as well. We can do better because Muhammad showed us the way. Thank you, Ken Burns, for reminding us just how great a man he was.