The 12-year-old boy in Louisville, Ky., was upset. He had his red bicycle stolen from him. He told the policeman, Joe Martin, that he wanted nothing more than to give a good “whuppin’” to the person who did that to him. The policeman looked at the hurting young man and said that if he was going to do that, he’d need to “learn how to box first.” With that admonition began the transformation of the boy who eventually became known to the world as Muhammad Ali, the self-described “greatest fighter of all time.”
Before he died at age 74 on Friday night from complications of Parkinson’s disease and septic shock in an Arizona hospital, fears spread that he would not win this time. He had been in failing health for some years, so this latest medical crisis turned out to be his last “bout." The time had come for him to surrender: even the strongest spirit can be overcome by a weakened body. The once commanding physique could not “whup” this opponent; the frailty of health won the last count and his spirit was finally released.
When the news of his death became known, all the news outlets and organizations came out with their special reports and coverage. The weekend was wall-to-wall in remembrances by all kinds of people, from the famous and the ordinary, the great and the unknown. It is a rare thing that a public person can have such an impact upon the public imagination, especially for some 50 years, but that was just one of another of Muhammad Ali’s accomplishments in a long and varied life.
Muhammad Ali was famous not only for his fights in the ring but also for the ones outside the ring, fights that involved social and political convictions that—at the time—was not easily understood or accepted. Whatever stands he took, whether it had to do with refusal to serve in a war he didn’t agree with or understand, or changing his personal religious faith from the one that he was brought up with, or taking views many of his contemporaries—whether white or black—didn’t share, he took those stands anyway with full knowledge that they could be disadvantageous to him. He had to adhere to the Shakespearean dictum “to thine own self be true.” That is no easy thing to do, especially in the glare of public life through which he walked. At times, his greatest opponent wasn’t the other man in the boxing ring, but himself—and more than anything he had to contend with, mastering his self was what made him “the greatest.”
Much has been said about Muhammad Ali in the hours after his death; every aspect of his life was dissected, analyzed and remembered by those who were his fans and by those who were his detractors. No one can deny he was an arresting human being for all these years. Everybody loves a showman, an entertainer, and Muhammad Ali was certainly that. But he had the goods to back it up, “floating like a bee” in the boxing ring with the lightning speed of a right hook—that was all that was needed to punctuate his point.
But outside the boxing ring, Muhammad Ali was something else. He was unusual for a sports figure in that he didn’t just do what he had to do as a means for making a living and leave it at that. Ali was different: he was a “searcher” or “seeker”in that he sought the meaning about life. Not that no one ever did that—many did and many do—but as a major sports figure he dared to reveal that side of him that a public man of bluster and bombast normally never would: he wasn't afraid to explore what was out there in the wider world.
Despite all the witticisms, the glib poetry, and the hail-fellow-well-met good humor, he was sincere in his spiritual quest for meaning. Over time, as he aged, his spiritual views broadened while his physical skills narrowed: he became better known for being a humanitarian than the pugilist he famously was. He traveled thousands of miles and met thousands—and was possibly seen by millions—of people. To each and every one he came into contact with, he was kind, courteous and respectful. He was playful to little children whether they were white or black, for he still remembered what it was to be a child.
Famous people were eager to confer or be seen with him, too; he was equally anxious to meet and encourage good will with others who were of different races and faiths. He could clown around with the Beatles and he could banter with ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell, with whom he had a long-lasting—and teasing—friendship (one where Ali could be the only one who could get away with pretending to lift an unsuspecting Cosell’s toupee, and both would be subjected to hilarious impersonations by TV comics). He could be seen respectfully shaking hands with Jimmy Carter, president of the United States. And he would be presented in audience with another athlete and man of religious faith in the Vatican: Pope John Paul II. (Ali would ironically share with the pope the same unfortunate medical condition: Parkinson's disease.) And when his religion was being used as a pretext for political terrorism, he was swift in condemning that, even when his physical health was subpar. He who embraced all races and religions could never countenance his own being used for evil ends.
It is not widely known, but Muhammad Ali delighted in letting it be known that he was of Irish descent: he was the great grandson of Abe Grady from Ennis, County Clare. (When his great-grandfather emigrated to Kentucky, he met and married an emancipated slave and they would have Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali as their famous descendant.) He visited Ireland twice—in 1972 and in 2009—and both times, he famously charmed a people famously known for being charmers. Muhammad Ali was as famous with his words as he was with his fists and he will be long remembered for those, too. (Perhaps his Irish heritage had something to do with it…) His poetic renderings in the boxing ring was buttressed by his soulful soliloquies outside of it.
In 1974, just before his “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire with George Forman (which Ali won that heavyweight title bout with eighth-round K.O.), he was interviewed by British broadcaster David Frost. It took David Frost to ask Muhammad Ali the penultimate question that a searcher like him could only appreciate: Frost asked Ali how he would like to be eventually remembered. This is how the pugilist with fists and words responded:
“I’d like them to say he took a few cups of love. He took one table spoon of patience. One table spoon, teaspoon of generosity. One pint of kindness. He took one quart of laughter. One pinch of concern. And then he mixed willingness with happiness. He added lots of faith. And he stirred it up well. Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime. And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.”
No one could ever come up with a better obituary or epitaph, except for the person who was once a 12-year-old boy who had his bike stolen from him and let that experience change his life for the better.