Muhammad Ali was always an anomaly to me. When I️ first heard of him he was Cassius Clay. That’s what his parents named him. He was a good looking man. Our family actually met him and he held my Wanda in his arms during a visit to a Baltimore mosque on Wilson Street near where we lived. Oprah grabbed her up too when Oprah spoke for a Women’s Day event at our church. I don’t know what it was about that little girl that everyone was attracted to her.
But what struck me about Muhammad Ali was his willingness to go against the grain.
I️ was in junior high when he fought his first championship. He declared he would win against the reigning champ.
I️ had been taught to not brag on my own ability. Don’t toot your own horn. Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.
This was a lesson he never learned. Or decided to ignore.
He bragged about beating Sonny Liston. He beat Sonny Liston.
He bragged about beating Floyd Patterson. He beat Floyd Patterson.
Earlier in his career he even fought and beat Archie Moore who had one time been his coach.
He called the round he would win in.
He won in the round called.
He talked about his beauty.
He was beautiful.
The first man he fought and beat was a police chief in West Virginia. He said, “Clay was as fast as lightning. I tried every trick I knew to throw him off balance, but he was just too good.”
He even composed poetry about himself.
“You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?
Wait ‘til I whup George Foreman’s behind
Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.
His hand can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
“Now Clay swings with a right, what a beautiful swing
And the punch raises the Bear clear out of the ring
Liston is still rising, and the ref wears a frown
For he can’t start counting ‘til Sonny comes down
Now Liston disappears from view”
This is something for all of us to remember. He said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
He talked so much, he earned the nickname, the Louisville lip.
First of all I️ would have been chastised for such foolish talk about myself.
But he said it. And it was so. 56 wins. 5 losses. 37 knockouts.
When time came for the draft he refused to serve.
A country that does not respect me as a man wants me to fight and kill people I️ don’t even know.
Whether it was faith or inner confidence that propelled him, I️’ll never know.
What I️ do know is that he is designated the GOAT of his sport.
And that was always his declaration, long before the rest of the world agreed, “I️ am the greatest.”
“I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I really was the greatest.”
He is. He was. He always will be.
What gives a man this kind of substance? Confidence?
And the last thing I️ heard about him was the best.
When his family decided he’d fought long enough and should be released from all external supports that gave him life…
When his family had said all their goodbyes, given their last kisses and hugs…
They instructed the doctors to turn off the machines and let him slip away with dignity.
And they sat and cried softly as they waited for his last breath.
And they waited
And they waited
And the doctors assured them he was totally on his own and it wouldn’t be much longer
So they waited.
And they waited a little longer
But his heart wouldn’t stop beating
It just wouldn’t stop beating
He had the heart of a champion. And it just wouldn’t stop beating.