The Presence of Muhammad Ali
If there’s ever an argument to be made for the impact of presence, who better to make it than Ali in his final days.
We lost quite possibly the greatest athlete of all time last week – and one that I’ve kept a place in my heart for quite a long time: Muhammad Ali.
A little over eight years ago I’m sitting in a conference room, experiencing our Inspiring with Presence program with Greta Cowan as my facilitator. I’m completing my “window pane exercise” when Greta asks me to think about someone I admire, appreciate, or hold in high regard.
“Muhammad Ali,” I say.
I’m prompted to elaborate and answer “why.” Hundreds of thoughts begin to pour through my head.
I recall sitting around the television late at night with my dad watching Ali vs. Frazier fights. I’m usually not allowed to stay up late, but my dad makes exceptions for me to watch his favorite fighter. He tells me the things he admires about Ali, who is just a year older than my dad.
I think about Ali (Cassius Clay at this time) being a multiple Golden Gloves Champion – as an amateur! From his early days, he was the cream rising to the top.
I picture Ali (Clay) as an Olympic Gold Medalist. His dedication to his sport was second-to-none. I try to imagine how many years of training it took him to achieve that milestone. And I think about my own quest at Olympic stardom. How many push-ups, pull-ups, miles run, wrestling camps, practices, and many others things I did thinking I could one day have a chance at wrestling in the Olympics. I never got close!
I remember how Ali won the Heavyweight Championship three different times – the only boxer to ever do that. What resolve, determination, and skill it must have taken him to rise to the top, beating different champions each time on his way to the title.
In his first shot at the title, Ali was a 7 to 1 underdog. He was scheduled to fight Sonny Liston, the “Mean Old Bear,” who supposedly had connections to the mob. Ali fought through the fifth round (a fight he was clearly winning through the first four), when he complained of a mysterious ointment in his eyes that prevented him from seeing. (It was later revealed that two other Liston opponents complained of this same thing in their losses.) He asked his trainer to cut off his gloves, but his trainer refused. Ali continued to dance around the ring. Luckily, a round later, sweat removed the ointment from his eye and allowed Ali to continue the fight. He would beat Liston in the later rounds.
“Why?” Greta repeats.
“His conviction,” I finally reply. “I’m sure that I would have done things differently. I would have fought in the war, gone into the draft, and fought for the U.S. Ali made the decision, based on his religion, that he wouldn’t fight in the war. In doing so, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, and wasn’t allowed to fight for several years – the best years possibly – of his athletic career. For someone to have that conviction and belief that he was doing the right thing, that’s why I bring up Muhammad Ali.”
Belief in doing the right thing.
These are high character attributes and I know I would have responded differently if I were in Ali’s shoes. However, I respect him for responding the way he did.
Muhammad Ali really was The Greatest of All Time. In his youth he was named, “The Louisville Lip” because he was so outspoken and confident in his abilities. This was during a time where athletes were most often quiet and humble and he was exactly the opposite. Today our athletes resemble Ali – with braggadocios, continued comments – and most never backing them up.
If there’s ever an argument to be made for the impact of presence who better to make it than Ali in his final days. For all the glamorous, amusing talking he did in his youth, Parkinson’s disease robbed him of speech and physical abilities.
At the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, there stood the heavy weight champion of the world, a shriveled body, shaking with weakness, without speech, in front of thousands of people in a crowded stadium. He wasn’t fit enough to take part in the rehearsal, but there he was, lighting the flame.
There was not a dry eye in the stadium. The crowd ERUPTED with applause.
Towards the end all it took for The Greatest of All Time to move us was to widen his stance, bend his knees, and throw a few jabs. What presence!
I’ll miss you champ!