At the time of this writing, Muhammad Ali passed away less than one week ago. Everyone who knows me well knows Muhammad Ali has been one of my heroes since I was a child. I grew up reading the Miami Herald and, because Muhammad Ali had close ties to Miami Beach and its 5th Street Gym, there was often something in it to read about him. I admired Muhammad Ali for his athletic prowess, but I admired him far more for his willingness to take a stand, as unpopular as it was, for something he believed in. Many people with my light skin color despised Muhammad Ali because they thought he was bragging when he claimed to be “the greatest.” I couldn’t disagree more with this narrow minded, racist, and prejudiced view. Even as a young person, and now as someone with many years lived, I believe Muhammad Ali had every right to say he was the greatest, because he WAS the greatest. All one has to do is look at his list of accomplishments to verify his claim! Has anyone among our circle of friends dared to give up a world title (not to mention earning one, in anything, to begin with!) because of religious, ethical, or moral beliefs? If so, I’d love to hear about this person’s accomplishments! In addition, Muhammad Ali’s 3 plus decades of living with a devastatingly fatal disease, while still maintaining his dignity, sense of humor, and grace, is, in my opinion, another reason he had the right to claim the title, “The Greatest.” I think all of us can benefit from a little of Muhammad Ali’s self confidence. In fact, I recently suggested to a young woman who, by outward appearances, has everything going for her, but who inwardly lives with low self esteem and doubts about herself, that she adapt Muhammad Ali’s fighter’s stance, all the while telling herself, “I am the greatest” as a way to boost her confidence. Even in death, Muhammad Ali continues to inspire and awe!
Though I have always been aware of Muhammad Ali and have known some of the history, I have not had the long connection with his legacy as Melissa has. But, having watched documentaries about him, like the movie about the Rumble in the Jungle, I recognized how impressive he was, in and out of the ring. And watching him handle Parkinson’s disease, so directly and with grace, I was amazed with his strength. Based on reading the many posthumous stories written about him I have gained an even greater respect for him. Relatively unknown stories such as his helping a young girl on her way to do missionary work or literally talking a man “off a ledge” don’t surprise me as much as they demonstrate the good he did in his lifetime. His “I am the Greatest” mantra is fascinating in the ways it went against a societal norm, the norm of humility. Many of us are taught, from a young age, not to be boastful. And, it is clear that Cassius Clay, (but not Muhammad Ali) was taught this. A recently replayed PBS documentary showed him as a young man getting started in Miami and he was someone who was seemingly humble. Other stories have recounted that, even after his success and victories, he did not have the airs about him that many of today’s celebrities have despite lesser achievements. But, as the PBS program depicted, he adopted “the greatest” persona early on as a marketing and branding tool. But, as it rang true, the brand image worked and we are all better off for his efforts at living up to the image he created for himself. The side message is that tooting one’s own horn can be beneficial in many ways, despite sometimes, what we have been taught otherwise.