I was about to write a blog on the value of insight we can derive from Big Data when I found myself voraciously consuming old Muhammad Ali interviews on YouTube.
So I decided to do what I do often – pivot.
The reason I couldn’t stop watching Ali had little to do with the fact he’s likely the greatest boxer of all time and had everything to do with the fact that he’s likely the greatest athlete of all time. And I chose (or stole) the word “greatest” to describe Ali, not in the context of his achievements as a boxer, but in the context of his achievements as a fighter. I think there’s a difference.
Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympic Games. Four years later, he won the heavyweight title. Two years after that, he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Shortly after, he was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his title until the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 1971. Having sat out during the prime of his career, Ali returned to boxing and, in 1974 at the age of 32, won the heavyweight title for a second time. And then, he did it again, for a third and record-breaking time, at the age of 36 in 1978.
Ali’s famous boxing matches and staggering 37 knockouts are part of the fabric of boxing history; they represent some of its most memorable moments.
But the part of Ali’s career I want to focus on is shortly after he won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. Back then, the 18-year-old Cassius Clay was just a budding young boxer who had gained some notoriety in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, having taken up the sport just a few years earlier.
In the 1960 Olympic Games, which took place in Rome that summer, Clay made history by defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland. It was an incredibly patriotic moment for America. Here was a young American athlete from a small city in the Midwest defeating the Polish champion to win the gold medal.
At the time, Poland was a communist country, so this battle took on greater significance as for many it symbolized our ability to beat up, or beat down, communism. It symbolized that we were tougher than the communists; and while that may not mean a lot in 2016, it sure meant a lot in 1960. Remember, this was a time of bomb shelters and “duck and cover” drills. That victory meant something.
When Clay returned home that summer, he was sure that he’d be treated like a hero by the locals. One day, he walked into a diner to get a hot dog and a cup of coffee and instead of getting a hero’s welcome, he was asked to leave. In 1960, black people still weren’t allowed to eat at a restaurant in downtown Louisville.
Shortly thereafter, Cassius Clay became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. A few years later, in 1966, Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War stating religious objections due to his conversion to Islam.
With that decision, Ali did the unthinkable. He refused to fight side by side with his American brothers. He told Americans he wasn’t American and, as you can imagine, that didn’t sit well.
Ali was ostracized. He was on an island – his very name was toxic at the time. Plain and simple – he was considered a traitor.
And while it may seem like an act of cowardice to refuse to fight, as men like Gandhi have taught us repeatedly throughout history, sometimes the greatest act of courage and strength is to take a punch, not throw one.
Ali took a punch in 1966 and he was down for the count.
Most of us would have crawled into a hole and given up. The pressure of having every word written and said about you be negative can be overwhelming. But Ali didn’t give up.
He fought the army and court system until he was vindicated in 1971. He fought George Foreman and regained the title in 1974. And then he fought Leon Spinks and regained it again in 1978.
The man was a fighter.
I’m not here to opine on his decision to avoid service. I wasn’t alive when he made that call and I’m not qualified to decide if it was right or wrong. But Ali made it boldly. He made it because he felt abandoned by white America. He made it because the brotherly spirit that binds men to fight in battle wasn’t extended to him in that diner in Louisville that morning. He made it because he felt enslaved by an America that refused to see black people as equal. And when he made it, he made it with conviction.
He fought to the end, just as he always had. The man was tough for god’s sake, that was clear; he even held Parkinson’s at bay for more than 30 years until it finally took his life last week. But more than tough, he was determined. And there is no greater fuel for a fighter than sheer will.
Ali fought his whole life. He fought to the end and in doing so taught us all a valuable lesson. And it is in that context that I think he embodies true greatness. It is in that context that I hope we judge him against his peers in determining the greatest athlete of all time. For if we do, it’s a first round knockout.