Like many, I often draw inspiration from larger-than-life characters, both fictional and non-fictional. And while others can give you more detailed synopsis of his history or recount all the dates of his greatest moments (ESPN actually did a great 10 minute video here), Muhammad Ali was one of two people I was, and will continue to be, inspired by.
When I was a kid, my dad introduced me to Ali like many of us probably were.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
We were horsing around, rough housing like father and son do, and he was doing the “rope-a-dope” and tossing out quotes. He introduced me to Ali through some books and magazines, and from there, I simply read about him. The Thrilla in Manila. The Rumble in the Jungle. His title stripped for refusing to fight in Vietnam. His return, his interviews, his drive.
My favorite story surrounds the famous underwater photo shoot.
The photographer, Flip Schulke, went to take photos of Ali in Miami. He was told by Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) that training underwater was something a former trainer had taught him. Inspired, Schulke pitched it to Sports Illustrated, who though the idea silly and rejected it. Life took the shots instead, and we got some of the most iconic imagery in sports history.
The thing is, Ali couldn’t swim. No trainer told him to train under water. It was all a ruse, and Schulke didn’t find out until three years later and he was tricked.
It’s one of many beautiful anecdotes about Ali. It shows how far he would go to put on a show, something to obfuscate the truth to confuse or trick his opponents or critics. Can you imagine the talk in boxing clubs around the country? I wonder what it was like, if he actually fooled anyone.
Who trains underwater? No one does. Except Cassius Clay.
Except he doesn’t. To me it was an incredible portrait of how to tow the line; it’s just crazy enough to where you’d believe it. And when you think you know your opponent, that’s when they surprise you.
When I was wrestling in college, I pulled very heavily from this quote from Ali:
“I hated every minute of training, but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'”
While I never took first at a tournament in college, I did achieve my goal of placing in the top 8 in the nation to become an All-American. All thanks to the power of a few words.
Only it wasn’t just words, was it? For all the talk, Ali was the living embodiment of “Actions speak louder than words.” Both out of the ring and in it, if he was talking tough, be was backing it up with blows against his opponent. If he was talking peace and love, he was backing it up with charitable work.
He was the epitome of Descartes’ philosophy of “I think, therefore I am.” It’s an intense and powerful mindset; it’s not enough to want to be the champion, you have to think, you have to know, you’re a champion. And you take the steps to achieve that championship. You back it up with action. You execute, and when you’re done you say “what’s next?”
He was a man of conviction and principal. He said it, he meant it, and then he went and did it. When he was supposed to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, he essentially said he won’t go fight a war for a nation that won’t even fight for his basic human rights.
Everyone has heroes. The world lost the greatest, but his ability to inspire will live on for a very, very long time.
It’s a small gesture, but I’m grateful and honored to have walked the same Earth as a legend.
Thank you, Muhammad Ali.
Rumble, young man, rumble.