Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., as Muhammad Ali was once known, was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942. During Ali’s youth, Louisville was a city of segregated public facilities, the Kentucky Derby, and other symbols of the Southern white aristocracy. African Americans were the servants and poor working class. The grandest dreams available to them were being a preacher or a teacher in an all-black church or school.
Young Cassius was intense and full of dreams, which in this environment brought frustration. He knew he was somebody and needed to somehow vent his societal suppression. That’s when he discovered boxing. At twelve years of age and eighty- nine pounds, young Cassius had his first official boxing match. He won by a split decision and immediately started jumping up and down yelling, “I am the greatest. I will be the greatest fighter who ever lived.”
Years later, a childhood classmate remembered, “We were in elementary school together and Cassius was just another one of the kids. You push and you shove each other, and get into the normal fights. There were days he lost and days he won. So when he beat Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship, we all started laughing, saying, ‘He’s not even undefeated in the neighborhood. How can he be champion of the world?’”
I can’t exactly explain why, but probably the most prestigious award, accomplishment, or title in all of sports is to win the heavyweight boxing championship of the world. Cassius Clay won the championship, converted to the Muslim faith, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, was stripped of his title for refusing induction into the US Army on religious grounds, and won the championship back two more times. He truly is the greatest. He is not only the most famous fighter who ever lived, but the most famous athlete and most recognized face in the world.
As a teenager, I had been a Golden Gloves boxer, and Ali had been my idol. I emulated everything he did from tassels on my boots to the Ali Shuffle, rope-a- dope, and taunting jab. With fast hands and a desire to beat everybody, I was known as the “Great White Hope.” Each time I fought, instead of chanting, “Danny, Danny,” my friends chanted, “Dali, Dali!” Muhammad Ali truly was my hero, and I would have given anything to meet him.
Years later, in 1988, I had just finished speaking to the students of Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. I was in the Union Building signing books when I overheard some students talking about seeing Muhammad Ali on campus.
I was so excited I could hardly ask where. They informed me that he was gone, but it was no big deal because he lived there and visited the school often. I immediately excused myself and asked the two gentlemen who were driving me around to grab a camera and take me to Ali’s home. They told me I was fooling myself if I thought I could meet him. They stopped at the big white wall and giant iron gate at the edge of a long, curving driveway. I got out and walked the hundred yards to his beautiful home. His eighty-eight acres had previously belonged to the Chicago gangster Al Capone, and “Muhammad Ali Farms,” as Ali called it, was an amazing sight.
With my heart pounding, I took a deep breath and knocked on the front door. A beautiful woman answered. I knew from photographs that she was his lovely wife. She asked, “May I help you?” I said, “Yes ma’am. Is Muhammad in?”
She asked, “May I tell him who is calling?” Sheepishly, I replied, “Sure, Dan Clark.”
She walked away, and within seconds, an imposing six-foot- three-inch, 225-pound world champion, world peace ambassador, advocate of human rights, living legend, and idol filled the entire doorway. Muhammad simply smiled his famous smile and in his quiet, breathy voice invited me in. I excused myself for a minute, sprinted to the garden to where my friends could see me and wildly waved my arms and whistled for them to come in.
In 1988, Muhammad’s Parkinson’s disease had not yet taken away his speech. Although he was a little slow, he talked up a storm. The next four and a half hours, we sat in his living room and watched his greatest fights: the Thrilla in Manila, the
Rumble in the Jungle, and more. With his own personal commentary, jokes, and stories, he made every move come alive. Later he even performed some of his favorite magic tricks.
The most incredible thing for me was when he asked me, “Did you ever fight?” I nodded yes, and he said, “Let me see your left hook.” We both put our hands up and started to playfully spar and dance around. (Photos attached).
I broke into the Ali Shuffle, and he kidded me, “That’s not the Shuffle, that’s the Clark Scuffle!” We laughed and in his breathy voice he asked if I had any questions. I replied, “Yes.
You are the three-time world heavyweight champion, which means you got beat twice, and history shows that over your career you lost a total of five times, all to inferior opponents. Why?”
Muhammad’s answer taught me the number one cause and only solution to eliminating complacency in our lives, “When you start looking at yourself as the competition, and attempt to live off your past laurels and successes, you lose your competitive advantage and eventually lose the fight. Once the fight begins you no longer hold the title, but have put it up for grabs and must do everything in your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual power to win it back. Every time you climb in the ring you must be brilliant at the basics, having outworked and out-prepared your opponent as a hungry, fiercely focused warrior willing and able to fight as hard as you did the first time you won the title – throwing every punch with power and purpose to do whatever it takes to win the title back!”
He then got right in my face and said, “Everybody knows I’m the greatest, but so are you. Repeat with me, ‘I am the greatest.’” I repeated it and he said, “Louder, with more heart.” I repeated it, and he said, “No, like your man Rocky. Mean it, man, mean it. Say it like you want to beat Joe Frazier. Say it like you want to punch George Foreman. Say it like you want to punch me cause I’m Howard Cosell!”
One more time he yelled, “I am the greatest,” and again had me mimic him. He then put his arm around me, gave me a big hug, looked me square in the eyes, and whispered, “How do you feel? Do you believe it? I do.”
It’s been many years since that wonderful day, but I remember it every time I walk past the photos of us hung on my basement “Wall of Fame.” Whenever I am discouraged and feel that I can’t go on anymore, I relive Ali looking me square in the eyes and convincing me that, “I am the greatest.” I guarantee he is, and he wants each of us to believe that we can be, too.
My most prized possessions in my sports memorabilia collection are two boxing gloves, photos and a book, all autographed by my hero and idol Muhammad Ali. RIP Champ! God bless us all to want to leave a legacy of love and leadership behind as Ali has done.