When I learned about the passing of my hero Muhammad Ali, my initial reaction was sadness. But that quickly passed as I remembered what “The Champ” meant to me and what he stood for.
Once, during a particularly difficult time in my life, I sought the counsel of a friend. After explaining my predicament to him, he looked at me squarely and said, “The truth ain’t always easy, but it will always set you free.”
As I think about Muhammad Ali’s impact and legacy, the words from my friend ring true again. They make it easier to process Ali’s transition, because for me Ali has always been a living, breathing example of truth, and even more, freedom.
Like most Black boys in the late '70s and '80s, I grew up idolizing Muhammad Ali. I wanted to be like him. He was after all The Greatest. Our fathers and uncles compared every other fighter and athlete to him, he was the prototype. Quick witted and exuding uncontainable charisma, he was a joy to see any time he appeared in a magazine or graced a television screen. Once, he even had a hilarious guest appearance on my favorite television show Diff’rent Strokes. In my boyish wonder, Ali was larger than life, a superhero straight out of the comic books.
But as an adult, I learned more about Ali, “the man.” Through books and documentaries, interview clips and articles, I came to know a Muhammad Ali who moved in truth unlike anyone I’ve ever known. Again, I found myself wanting to be just like him! No matter how difficult or controversial, no matter how inflammatory or divisive, to Ali truth was truth. And through this truth Muhammad Ali performed his infamous rope-a-dope on society.
At the height of his boxing career, Ali was famous for his patented “rope-a-dope” style. The rope-a-dope was essentially a bait and switch. Ali would feign weakness, allowing his opponents attack him, ultimately to punch themselves out. When they had nothing left to give, Ali would spring to attack and leave his worn out opponent flat on their back.
The Ali I discovered as an adult was much more than a legendary boxing champion. A man of conviction, he was more than simply a civil rights activist or an icon of Islam. And though Ali may be remembered for these things, his sense of humor, his arrogance, his confidence, or even his charm, more than any of those things, Muhammad Ali was “free”!
The freedom I speak of is rare; not many will experience it, most lack the courage to face it, even fewer will recognize it. But to The Champ, truth was like breathing. As a result, it was never difficult for Ali to stand for something, because he always stood on truth.
It was truth that emboldened a young Cassius Clay to dismantle Sonny Liston in 1964 before the two ever stepped in to the ring. Declaring his greatness defiantly, he offended the popular sentiment of the silent, agreeable, humble Negro. Older fighters, fight promoters, fans, and journalists alike maintained that he needed to be put in his place. But as he so eloquently predicted, the 19 year-old Ali defeated Sonny Liston and “shook up the world”.
It was truth that led young Clay to embrace The Nation of Islam and change his name to Muhammad Ali. He debated politicians, scholars, students and many others on the basis of the truth about America’s inimical history with its Black citizens. And, when he felt himself being compromised by the NOI, that same truth compelled him to part ways with the organization.
He stood on the side of truth when he refused to be drafted by the U.S. military. Standing alone, he took on the United States of America, in what is arguably his greatest fight. While others shunned and disparaged him Ali saw himself as a man, whole and unbound. Why should a man sacrifice his life for a country that refuses to protect him at home? What man would go to a foreign land to kill other poor people for something he, himself did not believe in?
Called a traitor, a villain, an arrogant fool, viewed as an antagonist, a communist, a racist, Ali was demonized for standing up for his truth and speaking out against injustice and racist politics in the U.S. and abroad. In life, as in the ring, Ali allowed himself to be attacked repeatedly with all the ugliness and hate, all the fire and vitriol of American culture. He antagonized a society that demanded his obedience.
Never make me no underdog!
He made fun of institutional racism.
I’m too pretty!
He taunted America’s contradictory foreign policies.
That’s all you got sucka?!
Leaning back into the ropes, he took each blow until his attackers became tired. Un-phased, he stood up dropped his hands, eyed his opponent and beckoned for more. With his opponent winded, weary from punching themselves out, Ali rallied his own strength and showed us all why he is the greatest. Time and time again he emerged from his battles victorious, because, well, truth is truth.
Too many of us allow others and society to dictate how we move, act, think. We deny our truths for fear of sticking out or because it may be unpopular or even dangerous. Muhammad Ali is the Greatest because he lived and fought for what is right and true as should we all.
The only difference between you (or me) and The Champ is that he was never afraid to embrace truth. And, well, the truth isn’t always easy. But as evidenced in the life and the legacy of Muhammad Ali, it will always, ALWAYS set you free!