How can someone be so much larger than life? How can a person be both arrogant and humble? How is it even possible to be inspiring and also polarizing? Some of those answers may come to us in the days ahead as we are reminded more and more about the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali, who passed away yesterday after enduring Parkinson's syndrome for thirty two years.
It was as a young boxer that Ali first became known to us, winning six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and two national Golden Gloves titles. There were a LOT more wins to come of course. I recall some of those early fights. I can especially remember The Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila, although I don't think I actually saw them. I can remember the controversies too: his name change and religious conversion, his boasting and often conflicting opinions, his draft evasion and the stripping of his boxing title. I remember too his televised conversations with Howard Cosell, David Frost, and Dick Cavett. He was a champ in the ring, and he was certainly a master showman, and that is what most people are talking about today. Ali though was also a hero in every sense of the word, and it is seeing him visit soup kitchens and making public appearances for charities that I will remember most.
He once said "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." Yes we all remember his "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," but Ali said many more powerful things. "Don’t count the days; make the days count" is another example. I find those words of his very inspiring. He also said "A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Last night I went to bed after watching clips of Ali in the ring and a few public appearance clips from later in life (like when he lit the Olympic cauldron in 1996). This morning there is much more. His titles and his statistics are all being mentioned and there is some mention of the Parkinson's. What seems to be missing though is what this man meant to so many people. He gave encouragement. In an interview with Bryant Gumbel he does talk about the disease he is living with, but points out that it isn't going to keep him down. Some people would have said it is impossible to achieve such greatness and it is certainly impossible to stay great given the health obstacles he encountered. Impossible though was not an option for him.
“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it," Ali once said. “Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Thank you for the inspiration Muhammad Ali. Thank you for your philanthropy (he supported the Special Olympics, Michael J. Fox Foundation, UNICEF, and numerous other charities). Thank you for great memories in and out of the ring. Thank you for truly making a difference.