For those of us growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Ali was the greatest boxer of all time. He set the standard by which all heavyweight fighters were measured. Canadians were also proud of George Chuvalo, not only because he was our champion but because he was tough enough to go the distance with Ali – twice.
Ali was also a great entertainer. We loved his legendary interviews with outspoken sportscaster Howard Cosell. Ali could handle him like no other athlete, avoiding Cosell’s questions and threatening to remove his hairpiece. Ali would then tell us how great he was, how pretty he was and how he would win his next fight.
As I grew in awareness of the world, I realized that Ali was more than a fighter and an entertainer. He was a man of principle and a true world champion.
Many were critical when, in 1964, he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay (what he called his “slave name”) to Muhammad Ali.
During the Vietnam War, Ali refused army induction. As a result, he was stripped of his title, was banned from boxing and lost his livelihood for more than three years.
The more that Ali stood for his principles, the more respect he gained.
He was beloved wherever he went. This became very apparent to me when I moved to Kinshasa, Zaire, in the early 1990s. Although Ali had defeated George Foreman there nearly 20 years earlier, people still talked about the fight and what it meant to them and their city. A dear friend told me how, at 16, he sold a pair of his pants in the market so he could buy a ticket, how he stood in the crowd and chanted “Ali, boma ye!” (“Ali, kill him!”), and then celebrated, dancing in the streets as the delayed rainy season finally arrived and soaked the city.
This was the kind of impact Ali had wherever he went.
Although principled, Ali was still very human and lived with regrets. He never made peace with Malcolm X before his former mentor was assassinated in 1965. X had a falling out with the Nation of Islam and Ali, a new celebrity convert, was caught in the middle. X’s faith had deepened, especially after his pilgrimage to Mecca. He saw that people of every race are beloved by God and so he could no longer engage in racial rhetoric. Ali seemed to believe the same as he too eventually left the Nation of Islam.
When we look at the people who spoke at Muhammad Ali’s recent funeral, it is clear that he did much to break down the barriers that were in place when he was born in 1942 and were still in place when he rose to fame in the 1960s. There were people of many races and religions, from First Nation leaders, to Christian and Muslim clerics, to former president Bill Clinton and Jewish comedian Billy Crystal. All spoke of their love and admiration for a great man.
Muhammad Ali taught us to celebrate who we are, to take pride in ourselves and to be our very best. We can all stand up and say, “I’m so pretty. I am the greatest.”
And then we must follow these words with hard work and determination, as we strive to make the same positive impact that he made in overcoming adversity to change the world.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.