In Roman times, the gladiator had a special role. He entertained the masses by engaging in martial combat with another gladiator. Most died by the age of 28 and were slaves. The fictional story of a gladiator who used his sway over the crowd’s emotions to bring about societal revolution from despotism to a republican form of government could be seen in the movie The Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe. The closest thing to a real gladiator in modern times is the man known as the G.O.A.T. (The Greatest of All Time), the boxer Muhammad Ali.
Muhammad Ali’s career more than justifies his title as “the greatest.” Ali was 56-5 with 37 KOs. In the ring, he was best known for a braggadocio that today’s fighters such as Mayweather aspire to but can never match. As Ali once said, “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
Ali’s influence went far beyond the arena of boxing. Muhammad Ali was always fighting for justice. When his bike was stolen from him at the age of 12 in 1954, Ali began a boxing career that would last until 1981, close to thirty years later. As Ali wrote in his 1975 autobiography, he had thrown his gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a diner and having a run in with a white racist gang. He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhamamad Ali in1964 upon becoming a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam; Ali later accepted Sunni Islam in 1975.
One of Muhammad Ali’s biggest fights took place outside of the ring. In 1966, Ali attempted to declare himself a conscientious objector to the war based on his religion of Islam. Ali stated:
“War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”
His words stirred the emotions of American society and culture much in the way his punches and speedy footwork left his opponents dazed. Ali helped bring attention to the plight of African-Americans in the United States by his support of civil rights leaders such as Malcolm X. Ali was quoted as saying, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger.”
Muhammad Ali’s refusal to enlist as a soldier in the Vietnam war led to his arrest and prosecution. Ali was found guilty of the felony of refusal of induction into the U.S. military and was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He was also stripped of his title and his license was suspended. On June 28, 1971, the conviction was overturned in Clay v. United States.
Muhammad Ali stood up for his beliefs, inside and outside of the ring. In a 1971 fight with Ernie Terrell in which Terrell refused to calling Ali by his name, instead calling him Cassius Clay, Ali punctuated every jab and punch with the taunting question “What’s my name, fool? What’s my name?”
Ali stood up for his people and his religion. In his own words:
“I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future.”
After the horrible attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, Muhammad Ali said:
“What’s really hurting me – the name Islam is involved, and Muslim is involved and causing trouble and starting hate and violence. Islam is not a killer religion, Islam means peace. I couldn’t just sit home and watch people label Muslims as the reason for this problem.”
Muhammad Ali as a boxer was poetry in motion, and as a poet was just as effective. When David Frost asked Ali in 1972 what he wanted people to remember him by after he was gone, he responded:
I’d like for them to say:
He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to it to each and every deserving person he met.
On Ali’s 70th birthday, I think its safe to say that the description fits. Happy birthday to The Greatest.