By Harris Sherline
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was perhaps the most widely recognized taunt during the years that Muhammad Ali dominated the fight game. He was and is a larger than life personality, transcending even the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, which sidelined him some years ago.
But, the Muhammad Ali most people remember, especially America’s seniors, is a man who overcame every obstacle he encountered on his way to the top of his profession, exhibiting uncommon strength of both character and will as he went. He is a towering personality, still beloved by people around the world.
Without question, Muhammad Ali was the most famous African American of his time and remains among the most widely recognized faces on the planet, widely remembered as one of the greatest prize fighters of all time, if not the greatest, a three-time winner of the heavyweight world title. Famous for his prowess in the ring and his ability to promote himself, he grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of a billboard sign painter and a household domestic. He was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., which Ali changed when he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964.
However, “Aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod for controversy, turning the outspoken but popular champion into one of that era’s most recognized and controversial figures.”
There was a time when Ali was reviled and attacked by many of the very people who later came to admire him. During the Vietnam War, he refused to serve in the United States Army, on the grounds that he considered himself to be a conscientious objector, stating, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”
I remember, at the time, most Americans thought his claim was merely a ploy to avoid serving in the military, that he was ungrateful for the opportunities and financial success he had been able to achieve in this country. But, he stood firm, not only adhering to his Muslim faith but having to deal with having his title stripped from him.
Ali said, “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Ali also famously said in 1966: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong …They never called me nigger.”
When he appeared for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces in 1967, Ali “refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other boxing commissions followed suit.”
The jury gave Ali short shrift, finding him guilty after deliberating for only 21 minutes. He received the maximum sentence, which was upheld on appeal in New York, and the case subsequently went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he ultimately prevailed. After not being able to fight for three-and-a-half years, he regained his title in 1974, defeating the then champion, George Foreman, in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. Held in Zaire, Africa, the fight was billed as the “The Rumble in The Jungle,” drawing the largest audience in history at the time.
Although Ali has been faulted for many of the choices he has made during his lifetime, he is a living demonstration of the fact that “character counts,” displaying uncommon courage and strength of character by converting to the Muslim religion in the face of widespread intolerance, refusing to yield in spite of the damage to his reputation and the loss of his livelihood, and the threat of losing his freedom. He was clearly prepared to go to jail for his principles.
Today, at age 66, dealing with the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, Ali is a living example of character and grace. Notwithstanding the various shortcomings and perhaps his less than exemplary behavior at various times during his earlier life, Ali has become a model of courage and dignity for all to see and emulate. Traveling throughout the world to participate in a wide variety of events, he has become one of the most beloved figures of our time, a living example of the fact that character counts.
Blessed with a gift for words, Ali has made many quotable statements. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is perhaps the best known, but others truly exemplify his great character:
Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.
I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.
Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.
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.
Old age is just a record of one’s whole life.
To be able to give away riches is mandatory if you wish to possess them. This is the only way that you will be truly rich.
Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change.
We have one life; it soon will be past; what we do for God is all that will last.
What keeps me going is goals.
© 2008 Harris R. Sherline, All Rights Reserved
NOTE: Read more of Harris Sherline’s commentaries on his blog at “opinionfest.com.”