Hearing that my childhood hero had transitioned Friday evening was like a shot to the liver. The kind of punch that can incapacitate even the most skilled boxer. I first fell in love with boxing as a young girl. I grew up swooning over Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, Marvelous Marvin Hagler and later Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Floyd Mayweather Jr., but it was my earlier introduction to Ali that made me truly appreciate the “sweet science”… the art of hitting and not getting hit. For years, my Friday nights were already planned out for me because boxing came on ESPN and I’d watch any match, whether it featured a prospect, a contender or a champion.
Why did I fall in love with this sport that could be easily labeled as all brute and brawn? Simple… Ali was my first love and he brought brains and bravado to the sport, along with grace and principle. He put everything on the line for his beliefs. A belief system that made him lose three years of his prime only to return and shock the world by becoming the champ again! He gave us the most classic match-ups with Liston, Frazier, Norton and Foreman. He fought during boxings golden age… when the best always fought the best. I’ve re-watched most of those classics too many times to count… becoming enamoured with the man inside the ring that showcased incredible footwork and hand speed and when all that started to slow… was brilliant enough to develop the rope-a-dope style that many fighters still use today.
The only other thing that I feel as much passion for as boxing is music. And even Ali played his role in laying out some of the groundwork for the emergence of 70’s hip hop with his lyrical style of rhyming while talking. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The hands can’t hit, what the eyes can’t see.” When James Brown was singing, “Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud”, Ali added to that, “I am the greatest”, “I am the prettiest thing that ever lived.” Such overt confidence, during the turbulent 60’s, was almost unheard of. When Nina Simone belted, “I put a spell on you”, Cassius Clay was transcending and casting his own spell on America when he said, “I am America. I am the part that you won’t recognize, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name; not yours. My religion; not yours. My goals; my own… get used to me”.
This was the part of the man, who stood outside of the ring so firmly in his truths, that I admired and respected the most! Who not only lit an Olympic torch, but lit a fire in our hearts… showing us what’s posssible even against all odds. It was this man, whose swagger became tempered with peace, purpose and intention… who ultimately became an American hero, an ambassador for peace, the people’s champion, a boxing icon and the G.O.A.T… I love you champ. Your legacy lives on!