Every time a major celebrity has died so far in 2016, I find myself saying, “this has to be it, right? It can’t get any bigger than this.”
And then Prince died … and I said, it definitely can’t get bigger than this.
And then it did.
This time, it was Muhammad Ali, an international icon both in the boxing ring and out, and arguably the most famous athlete to ever set foot on this planet.
This was a particularly interesting one for me, because I’ve made an effort lately to try to read up on the most famous American figures, and yet, I realized how little I knew about Muhammad Ali.
Crazy enough, he’s had Parkinson’s Disease every minute I’ve been alive. He was diagnosed in 1984, three years before I was born. Therefore, any live footage I’ve ever seen of him, like when he lit the Olympic torch in 1996, featured a fragile, vulnerable man.
The disease had long stripped him of his physical prowess and his acute verbal skills, two characteristics that really shaped and defined who he was in his early life.
So it’s been fascinating to read about his life over the past few days, and to see how much of a symbol he became during an integral part of American history. And I also realized that defining him simply as a boxer is an insult to the life he lived.
I mean, for one, he was a prominent African-American at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, so many Americans hated him for that.
He was an arrogant, pretentious, loud-mouthed boxer, and a ton of Americans hated him for that.
He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Most Americans hated him for that.
He changed his birth name, Cassius Clay, upon his conversion to Islam. The majority of Americans hated him for that.
And incredibly, it was those very same things he was vilified for that caused him, decades later, to become a beloved figure. If that’s not the epitome of perseverance, I don’t know what is.
In everything he did, the constant was that he always preached for people to strive for greatness. Even if you don’t believe you can ever be great at anything, then fake it. If you say it enough, maybe you will start to believe it.
Yes, it helps to boost your ego when you literally beat people up for a living. But while living during a time when the color of his skin was supposed to make him believe he inferior … he chose otherwise.
We’re so often told to question authority and to not simply accept things for the way they are just because we’re told to. Muhammad Ali sure as hell did both of those things, at a time when it was extremely dangerous for him to do so.
And that, my friends, is true courage.
And that’s why it’s been a revelation for me to learn about the Muhammad Ali that existed before I was born. The nimble, lethal, confident Muhammad Ali.
I’m pretty sure that’s the version of him he’d want us all to remember.