By C. Liegh McInnis
As a child, I saw Muhammad Ali as the ultimate symbol of Blackness—a combination of intelligence, socio-political activism, and style. (Many years later, even Prince used video of Ali in the ring to teach The Time stage presence.) I’m still amazed that I’m old enough to remember when Black people were amazed and happy to see a Black face on television, which meant that they were often nervous about how that Black person would be portrayed or how that Black person presented oneself.
Ali defied and refuted the centuries of lies about African humanity, intellect, and morality. He was more than a boxer; yet, he was the greatest boxer of all time. Think about that. He was the greatest of his profession, a profession that for years was the symbol of American manhood, but his presence and essence of manhood transcended his profession as he became one of the most powerful acting agents in the Black Liberation Movement.
In 1964, he audaciously announced to the world that he was smarter and prettier than anyone. At a time when African people were routinely vilified for their physical features and intellectual ability, Ali stood boldly before the world and declared that he was Black, beautiful, and proud four years before James Brown put the same sentiment to music. Additionally, as a man who personified manliness, he showed the world that manhood included mental astuteness and empathy for others.
Like my father and uncles Ali, affirmed that manhood was not about physically dominating others but that manhood was about caring for and protecting those who could not protect themselves. As such, he was powerful because he taught us how to fight for others while we are fighting for ourselves. And, finally, Ali taught me about humility and diligence. For years I marveled at Ali’s ability to be interviewed after losing the first Frazier fight. To put it plainly, as a child, I remember thinking that there was no way I would have been able to face the world after I had talked all that noise and then lost the fight.
For those who don’t know the history/story, Ali had been stripped of his title by refusing induction into the armed forces. He spent the next three years lobbying for his right to box. All the while, he proclaimed, rightfully so, that boxing did not have a real champion because he didn’t lose his title in the ring.
When Frazier became the champ, Ali made sure that the world considered Frazier a “fake champ.” Many people—mostly the African-American community—agreed with Ali, and others—mostly the White community—disagreed. Continuing to fight for his legal rights while proclaiming Frazier to be a fraudulent champ, Ali finally won his right to fight, only to lose to Frazier—devastating much of Black America. Noted television journalist Bryant Gumbel stated that he cried his eyes out when Ali lost to Frazier. Gumbel added, “When Ali lost, it was like those of us fighting for Black rights had lost.” That’s one hell of a weight for one man to carry.
As a child, I wondered “How could he go before all those reporters and give an interview after losing?” As we said in the country, I would have been too “shame-faced” by losing after having talking all that noise. Ali, like a man, stood before America and the world and answered every question. He was not belligerent but resolved.
How could he remain so poised and confident after suffering the greatest defeat of his career? When I asked my father how Ali could sit there and talk to those people who were happy that he had lost, my father stated, “because he’s a man son—a man like your granddaddy and a man like your uncles.” My father paused and, then, continued, “Real men, son, don’t run from anything. We do the best that we can, we accept and admit our failures and mistakes, and we work to do better. That’s all a man can do.” That’s the ultimate lesson that Ali taught me. Stand for that in which I believe, fight as diligently as I can for it, accept and admit my mistakes, and make it my life’s journey to learn from my mistakes and failures so that I can become better today than I was yesterday. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee: the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”
That famous Ali rhyme inspired me never to stop moving/progressing no matter how much life tried to knock me out. R.I.P. to The Greatest of All Time.