When the people from Generation Ali approached me via Facebook the other day, needless to say I was not only touched, but a bit shocked too. This latest initiative of legendary fighter Muhammad Ali aims to pass the proverbial torch of courage on to young people everywhere. Beyond the metaphors though, there are some things that just never go out of Style. Ali is one.
London 2012, scene of the games of the XXX Olympiad, what a chic and happening venue this was for legendary events to take place? The lights dimmed, as the torch Olympic flag made its way to center stage. A queen, 85,000 jubilant fans, and about a billion people at home sat silent as a seated figure in the spotlight was helped to his feet. Ali. A collective whisper rose. We all stood and cheered, cried a bit, and remembered times when being “The Greatest” was not always in vogue. But before going back, Generation Ali just announced a video contest to let people share with the world how they are working to make a difference.
In case you never knew, Ali has always been about social change, the cause of humanity, and using his legendary status to help others. Along those lines, let’s look at some Ali bits which, at the time, were not exactly consider stylish or popular with mainstream thinking. And let’s remember, change is never easy.
The year 1967 saw a nation rendered apart over the conflict in faraway Vietnam. Half the country dedicated to winning an unwinnable war, the other half urgently speaking out for peace. I was around to hear the rhetoric, to see the consternation, to feel the wrath of competing ideals. Muhammad Ali, Heavyweight Champion of the World, announced his virulent protest by refusing to be drafted. In one statement, the never shy Ali pretty much summed up millions of people’s sentiments: “I Ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Ali was subsequently made a villain in the press, his title belts stripped away, Ali’s career and his future were suspect. It was largely due to his courage, his ability to synthesize the views of young protesters into the simplest form, that some say empowered Dr. Martin Luther King to forge forward with his civil rights agenda. Ali gave up more than most human beings ever have in that single act of courage – and as fate would have it, he also snared a bit of immortality.
In 1971 the Supreme Court ruling allowing Muhammad Ali his rights as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam Conflict allowed for his return to boxing. In what to was become a literal “Fight of the Century” Ali met boxing legend Joe Frazier for the first time. Frazier, the then and later champion, was to be the catalyst that served to elevate the man some called “The Lousiville Lip” as one of humanity’s most prolific voices. In his close loss and even in his knockdown suffered by a shattering Frazier left hook, Ali became more than a boxer – he showed a waiting world how to get up off the canvas. This and later meetings between these two Titans are still the most talked about boxing events in history.
In 1975 an aging Ali won, by most expert’s accounts, the biggest upset in boxing history when he defeated George Foreman in what was known as “The Rumble In the Jungle” – Ali was the odds on underdog. This episode in the storybook life of Muhammad Ali was the subject of the 1996 Academy Award winning film documentary, When We Were Kings. Kings indeed. Again Muhammad Ali beat the odds and popular opinion showing the world what “possibility” really is.
Many of Ali’s most noted moments were deemed either unpopular or downright foolhardy in cases like fighting pro wrestlers and marshal artists, taking on Heavyweight Champion Larry Holmes so far past his prime, and even his match against Leon Spinks to win the title for an unprecedented third time. The thing about Ali, most do not realize is, Muhammad took on all comers. He essentially never turned down not only a fight, but neither has he ever let a plea for help fall on deaf ears. It is Ali’s retirement from the boxing ring that offers some of his most astounding achievements.
Diagnosed with Parkenson’s Syndrome back in 1984, Muhammad Ali never complained once since. As always the defiant champion of his self governing principles of; Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality, the greatest voice of our time exemplifies these. Regardless of how cliché or unpopular even humanitarian efforts may seem, these kinds of endeavors are what speaks best of mankind.
In 1991 America was engage for the first time with Saddam Hussein in what was termed the “Gulf War” then. For Muhammad Ali to fly to Iraq on a mission of hope for the release of American hostages, this cemented what Ali fans the world over point out as Ali’s use of his own celebrity for others. Imagine the courage flying that distance, debilitated by Parkenson’s, to meet with an uncertain fate. He was awarded the Spirit of America Award, and later the Presidential Medal of Freedom for such acts. But these were not Ali’s crowning achievements.
I was excited to watch the opening ceremonies for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Unable to attend these historic events, my personal dream of childhood, like so many millions I watched with anticipation. Kept secret from literally everyone, the fact Muhammad would be the athlete to light the Olympic torch ended in what has to be considered the greatest televised Olympic opening moment in history. Challenged by his Parkenson’s, too fragile to even rehearse his part in the drama, Ali stood majestically then bended to light another chapter in his unbelievable story. Tears fill my eyes still as I watch the video below.
When Ali’s wife of many years Lonnie helped him to his feet in London, a wave of remembrances washed over this writer. Dr. King being shot, Bobby Kennedy, helicopters falling into the sea when Vietnam was abandoned, Richard Nixon’s resignation speech, John Wayne in his last film “The Shootist”, the day Elvis died, war, hunger, space shuttles, Madonna then Lady Gaga, Google, and up until Usain Bolt’s poetic triumphance in London, 10,000 pictures of greatness and humanity – and then Ali. Seldom do we have the chance to witness such character. Popular, stylish, chic, or revolutionary and new, frowned upon and shunned – human beings like Muhammad Ali are above and apart from style. Ali sets the style.
Join Generation Ali. The Greatnest of us all has called you, and like George Foreman says in the touching tribute to Ali, “Heroes, it doesn’t matter if they’ve lost an arm or a leg, heroes are still beautiful.” Share the beauty Ali gives off.