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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Happy Birthday Muhammad Ali

One of the greatest athletes in American history, and arguably the greatest boxer of all time, Muhammad Ali celebrates his 66th birthday today. He mesmerized his opponents with skills never seen before in the heavy weight division. “Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee! Ahhhhhhhh! Rumble young man…rumble…Ahhhhhhhh,” was the poetic expression that Ali and his assistant trainer, Drew Bundini Brown, would often shout at each other during times when the adrenaline charged emotions were running high; either during training or immediately preceding a fight.

In Ali’s November 1966 match against Cleveland Williams, he displayed a blend of swiftness, power and dazzling foot work, that caused some commentators to say that that was the greatest performance that he ever gave in the ring. However, some say that we will never know how good he could have been because of the almost four year’s moratorium on fighting that was imposed upon hm by the courts during his legal battle to stay out of the military.

The controversy will rage for years to come whether Ali was the greatest boxer ever. Some would argue Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Joe Lewis, or Rocky Marciano, but one thing is without argument, Ali was more than a boxer or a poet. Muhammad Ali exhibited a quality in his life that appears to be extinct in the sport’s world: He stood-up for a principle that only those who are willing to give their life for a cause can understand. He refused induction into the United States Military at the height of his professional career. As a result of this courageous stand, the Courts denied him the right to practice his boxing trade and made him forfeit his heavyweight championship.

Ali’s refusal to enter the Army was based on his religious belief that the War in Vietnam was evil. In fact, he was vilified for ‘truth-mongering’ when he said the following:

Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

His stand cost him millions of dollars in boxing purses, the loss of the prime of his career and the threat of a five year prison term hung ghastly over his head. However, this did not alter Ali’s stance. In fact, he once said he would face machinegun fire before denouncing his beliefs.

While today’s top athletes can earn as much as the gross national product of third world nations, I’d be curious to know which one would risk it all for a cause. When Ali fought Joe Frazier during the first fight of their trilogy, both fighters were guaranteed $2.5 million. Based on the way promotional rights are negotiated today, that could easily be $40 million to $50 million per fight in 2008. Ali risked a lifestyle that most people only dream of, but in doing so, he ascended beyond the ring as a sport’s figure into the rare stratosphere as a world-changer. On June 28, 1971, the United States Supreme Court upheld his right to refuse to join the military based on his religious beliefs.

I may as well make a full disclosure now that Ali is my favorite sport’s personality of all time; even greater than Michael Jordan, who I loved as an athlete and greatly admired his prowess on the court as well. However, Michael refused to speak out against Nike for its exploitation of low wage earners in its manufacturing facilities in China and other Asian countries, while being the sports apparel giant’s biggest endorsement. This certainly does not make Michael evil. It simply suggests that he is willing to profit from the exploitation of others, while I believe Ali would have been a forceful opponent of sweatshops before he allowed his name to be associated with one.

Here is another disclosure – I love history for a number of reasons; not the least of which is because it is so refreshing to read about the Ali’s of the world who faced a Goliath with nothing but a slingshot and one smooth stone, because we are certainly not witnessing that type of advocacy today. Would Ali have sacrificed the 2008 equivalent of his first purse against Joe Frazier? Absolutely yes! Because men and women of conscience see beyond money and know that they were born with something that is more valuable than silver, gold or a piece of paper that we call a dollar – it’s called integrity.

Two of the great social revolutionaries in our country, Martin King and Muhammad Ali, celebrated their birthdays two days apart. There’s nothing mystical about that, but what is pretty astonishing is that both men, taking separate paths, slew the dragon they confronted, making this world a better place for us all.

Happy Birthday Muhammad Ali!

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