On January 17th, 1947, one of the greatest boxers who ever lived was born in Louisville, Kentucky. Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, went on to become the World’s Heavyweight Champion many times over. His many accomplishments inside and outside his sport has inspired many to overcome their own trials and tribulations.
Even after retiring from the sport of boxing, Ali gave back to the world. It was evident through his actions that he wanted the world to benefit from his actions. He showed that he did not only take what the world had to offer, but also reciprocated when he could.
Then on June 3rd, 2016, Ali passed away in Scottsdale, Arizona.
The news of his death was broadcasted around the world and many took part in ceremonies to commemorate the legend. Ali’s life was full of ups and downs, having lived through some of the most interesting times in U.S. history. Now that he’s gone, I think it’s appropriate to reflect back on what this icon had taught us.
Here are some of the most memorable lessons that I learned from Muhammad Ali’s life. Hopefully, you’ll be able to benefit from these as well.
He Silenced The Doubters
Ali wasn’t always the top dog going into his fights. Actually, he was considered an underdog for two of this most famous victories: his first championship fight against Sonny Liston and his second championship fight against George Foreman.
In both of these bouts, Ali’s opponent was consider an extremely hard hitter and fought with a very aggressive style. But Ali was very well prepared for both of these fights. Although Ali put up lackluster performances in his two fights leading up to the match-up with Liston, he showed out against the champion himself and took the title.
After coming back from having his title striped due to his refusal to join the armed forces, Ali worked his way up to a championship fight with George Foreman. But this fight came after another one of his famous fights, his rematch with former champion Joe Frazier.
Ali had faced Frazier in a previous fight called the “Fight of the Century”, in which Frazier won by unanimous decision. That was Ali’s first loss in his professional career. By the time the rematch was scheduled with Frazier, Ali had accrued a second loss again Ken Norton. At this point, many considered Ali to be a “has-been” and washed-up. But he did not let the critics define who he was.
After winning his rematch against Frazier, Ali established the fact that he wasn’t going away anytime soon. He further solidified his status when he faced off against George Foreman, the champion at the time who knocked out Joe Frazier prior to Ali’s rematch.
Prepared With A Strategy
This fight with Foreman was called “The Rumble In The Jungle”, with Ali being the underdog. His previous two losses against Frazier and Norton were enough to put doubts in people’s minds as to if Ali can last against Foreman. Frazier and Norton were both destroyed by Foreman in matches previous to this fight via second round knockouts. Although Ali had rematches with both fighters and won, those victories were not nearly as dominant as Foreman’s were.
There was a lot of buildup to this fight, and Foreman was projected to treat Ali like he did most of his other opponents, knockout. Foreman was younger and many felt that Ali was past his prime. Ali, however, was prepared for this fight.
Knowing that Foreman was arguably the hardest hitter he has ever faced, Ali applied a strategy that tired Foreman out in the later rounds. This strategy came to be known as the “Rope-a-Dope”, which according to Ali’s trainer at the time was suggested to Ali by a boxing photographer.
Having knocked out Foreman in the 10th round of this fight, Ali defended his champion status 10 more times before losing to Leon Spinks by a split decision. Ali was 36 years old at the time of this loss and it was evident that his best years as a professional boxer were behind him.
Although Ali had only 3 more fights after his loss to Spinks, one of which was a rematch against Spinks that he won, Ali had established his status as one of the greatest, arguably the greatest boxer of all time.
Wanted It Bad Enough
In order to achieve what he had, Ali must’ve had the burning desire to overcome all the obstacles that stood in his way. This was evident in the fights he had and also what he had to do outside of the ring.
An examination of Ali’s professional boxing record, we can see he had lost a total of 5 matches¹. Out of those 5 matches, he re-matched against the same opponent again and won the second time around. In the case of Joe Frazier, Ali had faced off against him a total of 3 times, winning the last 2 times.
It’s interesting to note Ali’s experience on his third fight with Frazier. The match was scheduled to go for 15 rounds, but was stopped after the 14th by Frazier’s corner. Ali won this as a TKO, but it certainly did not come easy. Although Ali dominated the first 2 or 3 rounds, the momentum shifted in Frazier’s favor from round 4 to 12.
Taking Frazier’s left hooks to the body and head multiple times, Ali remained standing against the ropes. His “rope-a-dope” strategy did not seem to work as well against Frazier as it did against Foreman. At the end of the 9th round, Ali told his trainer that it was the closest he ever felt to dying².
From round 11 to 14, Ali was starting to gain momentum again, even after being punished with tremendous left hooks from Frazier in the previous rounds. The same left hooks that put many fighters before him to the canvas. Ali had the motivation to keep going and actually pick up the pace even after taking those bombs to the head and body.
So in the end did Ali give up? Not before Frazier’s corner did. Ali had actually requested his trainer to cut his gloves off after the 14th round but his trainer ignored him. Frazier’s corner just happen to give up before Ali did. Frazier himself actually wanted to continue the fight but his corner was concerned for his health.
Although this may make it seem like Ali got lucky with this win, it showed how badly he wanted to win. His desire to fulfill his claims of being the greatest and the best was so strong that he went full 14 rounds with Joe Frazier in the over 100°F ring.
Outside of the Ring
As much success as Ali had throughout his career, it wasn’t always that way. Among the ups and downs mentioned before, one of the “downs” was his arrest and eventual suspension of his boxing license by the New York State Athletic Commission and those of other states. His title as the world champion was also striped from him. This was due to his refusal to participate in the Vietnam War.
Ali was later convicted of draft evasion, a decision that was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court. However, his image as the heavyweight champion of the world was not the same throughout this time. There was also the growing racial tension among the masses during the Vietnam War.
But Ali never let any of these things get in his way. He couldn’t box at that time, the one thing that he was known for, due to his personal beliefs. Yet, he still carried on and upheld his decision, knowing the effect it may have on his career. Eventually he was reinstated and got his license back.
Ali then proceeded to make his way back into the scene and re-established himself as a top contender with his first fight against Joe Frazier.
Stayed With His Craft
Just as well-known as his boxing skills were Ali’s trash talking skills. Especially at the beginning of his career, trashing talking was not popular like it is today in sports. But Ali took a different approach with his own style. And he owned that style.
Ali once expressed that his trash talking was to get his opponent mad so they can’t think clearly. This way, his opponents leave themselves full of openings because they’re blinded with rage².
This was a definite risk for him not only because trash talking was looked down upon at the time, a trash talker that loses would have to eat his words. Yet, there was not a fight where Ali didn’t taunt and make fun of his opponent.
This is not saying what Ali did was right or that sportsmanship doesn’t matter. The point here is that Ali stuck with his style and his way of doing things. He didn’t change for the sake of popular opinion or fear of looking stupid if he lost. He simply stayed true to his style.
Would he have changed the way he conducted himself for the sake of pleasing the masses, it’d been obvious that he simply did what others want him to. This is a slippery slope that always leads to not achieving the personal success. Evidently, Ali took his style of trash talking to a new level. His overwhelming confidence and spirit of not giving up even shook one of the NBA’s all-time greats.
Match-Up Against Wilt Chamberlain?
Shortly after Ali’s boxing license was reinstated, he was challenged to a official boxing match by Wilt Chamberlain, the 7′-1″, 275 lb NBA star with a 92″ reach. From a physical standpoint, Ali was at a major disadvantage. Chamberlain was almost a foot taller, 60 lb heavier, and had over 12″ more on his reach than Ali.
The fight was eventually called off and never happened. I’ve personally read many different theories on the reason why it was called off. Some say Ali’s team didn’t really want the fight to happen so they changed the contract such that Chamberlain’s lawyers advised him to not take the fight. Others have said that Ali and Chamberlain had a friendly sparring match before the signing and Ali supposedly embarrassed Chamberlain without trying.
I’ve also read that the fight was contingent on Ali beating Frazier that year and becoming the heavyweight champ. And since Ali lost to Frazier by unanimous decision, the fight was off. Another version I have heard is that Ali’s taunting and confidence led to Chamberlain calling the fight off³.
Whatever the reason was for the cancellation, one thing is for certain. Ali maintained his confidence and trash talking tactic throughout the entire ordeal. There was never a moment where Ali showed he was visibly afraid or even nervous. None of us will ever know for sure if Ali was indeed afraid or not. But he definitely kept his composure throughout.
So even in the face of something unfamiliar, Ali stuck to the game plan that has served him well. He wasn’t changing tactics or styles just because his opponent is different from anyone he’s ever faced. There was no doubt that he owned his style and he expressed it every chance he had.
After his first championship fight against Sonny Liston, Ali (at that time was known as Cassius Clay) legally changed his name to Cassius X Clay and later to Muhammad Ali. He also converted to the Nation of Islam and eventually Sunni Islam.
At that time, the Nation of Islam was viewed as a religion of violence and racial segregation. I’m not going to discuss the rights and wrongs of religious beliefs, but Ali stood by what he believed in, regardless of what others thought about it. Having just became the heavyweight champion of the world, Ali had everything to lose.
That was not enough to deter the champion from renouncing his faith however. He openly embraced his faith and voiced his beliefs in public settings on multiple occasions. Many people did not like it and even thought he was bringing down the sport of boxing, but Ali was true to his beliefs.
Just imagine how the public would’ve reacted if he renounced his faith or compromised in some way. Not only would Ali seem like a pushover, everyone, including those that he used to share the same faith with, would lose respect for him.
Ali showed that his integrity was unshakable and he was not going to compromise regardless of what others thought and said of him. He truly believed in his faith and proudly stood for it.
He Gave Back
After his retirement, Ali was very active with charity and activism for human rights and liberation of oppressed countries. Ali visited countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Lebanon, and Bangladesh to visit refugee camps and showed his support for Palestine.
One of the highlights of Ali’s accomplishments post-retirement occurred in 1990, when he traveled to Iraq prior to the Gulf War. He negotiated the release of the American hostages with Saddam Hussein and was able to secure the release of the hostages. In exchange Ali promised he would bring America “an honest account” of Iraq.
Ali also represented the United Nations as the “U.N. Messenger of Peace” in Afghanistan. He also worked with Michael J. Fox to bring awareness and fund research on finding a cure for Parkinson’s Disease.
When it comes to giving back to the world, these are just a few of the things that Ali did. To Ali, it wasn’t just about boxing, or the fame, or the wealth. It was about making this world a better place. He committed his time to doing just that.
Lessons From One Of The Greats
Not everyone will agree with his religious beliefs, his ideologies, his tactics, or even the way he lived. But he left plenty of lessons for all of us to learn from. All of these lessons tells us about the life of a champion, a leader, someone who achieved personal success in his life.
There are also mistakes that we can definitely learn from as well. Ali’s relationship with his wife was not always the greatest. And one of the contributing factors to that is due to Ali claiming another woman to be his wife during one of the pre-fight events for The Thrilla in Manila fight.
Ali has also openly expressed that one of his biggest regrets in life is turning his back on his one-time good friend Malcolm X when Malcolm X turned away from the Nation of Islam and joined Sunni Islam.
Ali was by no means without flaws, just like the rest of us. But what made Muhammad Ali great was not just his boxing record, but what he did as a human being. The greatest gift he gave to this world was living his life the way he did for everyone to learn from him.
So what have you learned from this great champion? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!
- “Muhammad Ali.” BoxREC. N.p., n.d. Web.
- “The Thrilla in Manila”. NBC Sports Ventures.
- “Achilles Heel Advertising: Repositioning the Competition – Home | Under The Influence with Terry O’Reilly | CBC Radio.” CBCnews. CBC/Radio Canada, 05 Mar. 2016. Web. 16 June 2016.