How he touched our lives, inspired us, and in many cases he changed the course of our lives. He touched people near and far. Many never had an opportunity to see Muhammad Ali in person but through books, documentaries and his acting many came to know him. There were many who did not like Ali. Some thought that he was brash and arrogant. They were hoping that someone would defeat him in the ring or that he would suffer blows to mess up his “pretty face.”
Two days after his death, the New York Times described Ali in a way that made readers think about the impact Ali had not only in America but throughout the world. The headlines read, “From Blockbuster Fighter to the Country’s Conscience” and “The Champ who Transcended Boxing.”
Growing up and watching Ali (we happen to be the same age) I can say with certainty that he probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Americans who would have went off to fight in the tragic, unholy Vietnam war. A war that took 58,000 precious American lives–had Ali not protested, we may have lost over 100,000 lives in Vietnam. Given Ali’s courageous stand not to go to war, he inspired and encouraged others to stand down and say no to war.
His insight and political position was rooted in the fact that at 21-years-old he accepted the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. What he learned as a young Muslim not only sharpened his focus and determination in the ring, but it also opened up his mind to the condition of Black people in America. He spoke out about discrimination and demanded Social Justice.
As the news unfolds about Muhammad Ali, we see many who try to sidestep and minimize his deep involvement in the Nation of Islam and the commitment he made to his faith. His stand not to go to Vietnam pricked the country’s conscience as mentioned in the New York Times. When he was given the name Muhammad Ali, it made those who followed boxing in America and throughout the world know immediately that there was something different about this fighter. When he won the championship from Sonny Liston (when most that followed boxing thought that there was no way that this untried youngster could beat a man they thought was invincible), he pumped new life into boxing. Ali created a dynamic where boxers could now make millions of dollars that they rightly deserved.
I was blessed to be in Muhammad Ali’s company many times. I was blessed to be in charge of the Shabazz Restaurant in New York that prepared Muhammad Ali’s food when he fought at Madison Square Garden. I was blessed to be in Turkey when Muhammad Ali was invited to visit Turkey on his first visit by the then foreign minister. Again the New York Times was correct; he was a champion who transcended the boxing ring.
One of his greatest attributes was to make people feel good about themselves while laughing at themselves. Today we would call him a gifted spoken word artist as he predicted the round that he would defeat his opponents. He could look at his opponents and give them names almost instantly that described them in a humorous way. He loved to make people happy. He loved to see people laugh and enjoy themselves.
Many would like to see Muhammad Ali as a man who crossed the bridge that got him over to the other side and turned and cursed the bridge. He was a Muslim and many would like to take that away from him and make him just a good American that had a tremendous ability to fight. Long live the courageous spirit of Muhammad Ali!