Remembering the greatest lesson taught by ‘The Greatest’ Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali
Illustration by Tim Taranto

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.” — Muhammad Ali

At the late age of 39 years and 10 months, Muhammad Ali boxed his last match, a loss. Almost two years before that, I met him when he made an appearance on behalf of a U.S. Senate candidate. My parents were volunteering on that campaign. Flown in from Chicago, Ali met my sister and me in the hallway of the Holidome, a Holiday Inn in Moline.

To many, like me, who had watched him beat Leon Spinks on TV, he was greater than any god. He danced in the boxing ring and spat poetry. He clowned as he punished his challengers. I was 10 and the few kids there at the event were running around the hotel. Word came that Ali had arrived. We cruised the hallways in search of the legendary figure. He came around a corner and I stopped dead to stare at him. With both fists up, he put one foot forward as if to spar with me. I stood in awe before the unsmiling heavyweight champion of the world and put up my little fists and took the proper stance. Would I have to spar with this 6’3” superstar in a business suit? Just as I put my fists up he took his down. Smiling, he said, “Hey, champ,” and reached out to shake my hand. Relieved not to have to go up against him, I didn’t say a word.

Later, we got his autograph (lost now) as he pestered my mom to bring him drinks (his religion forbids alcohol). After delivering two rum and cokes, she went back to the political work of standing around and talking, and, inexplicably to me, avoiding Muhammad Ali. But my sister and I didn’t let Ali out of our sight.

Today, when we think of Ali we remember his athletic accomplishments, his daring boxing strategies (who knew there was so much thinking in boxing?) and his political voice. In their time, Ali and figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. weren’t trusted by most whites. Ali had dodged the draft and given up his slave name to take a Muslim one, and he talked a lot of sass and bravado. He wouldn’t be called Clay by anyone. A boxer who refused to adopt the new name was famously taunted in the ring, “What’s my name?” as Ali punished him for the grievance.

Many rooted against him after the name change. He unnerved whites back then, but today few are holding a grudge against Ali for his pro-black views. He called himself “the Greatest” enough times that we now believe it — but it’s important to remember that, like the rest of us, he was not perfect. He lost fights. For several years, while waging a one-man protest against the Vietnam draft, he was stripped of his boxing titles and barred from boxing. He turned his back on Malcolm X.

When he fell victim to a neurodegenerative disease brought on by taking too many punches, the absence of his strong voice should have been ringing in our ears. The disease robbed us of a great black thinker and critical mind. Ali, by the way, for all the incredible verbal talent, wit and sharpness, could barely read or write.

It is perhaps in defeat that Ali gives us his greatest lesson. In 1973, after losing his second professional fight to make a 41-2 record, he said, “I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all the people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.”

Update: The original version of this article stated that Ali went to jail. Unlike many young men who resisted the draft, he was never sent to jail and his conviction was overturned. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 201.