Life lessons from ‘The Greatest’


Imagining myself in an arena full of boxing fans, I executed the move flawlessly—a lightning-quick shuffling of the feet. Right-left-right-left, zippity-zip-zip!

As I threw punches in front of the wall-length mirror at the sweltering 4th Street Boxing Club, the lanky kid shadowboxing alongside me cocked his head slightly as he noticed my maneuver. A second later this stone-faced teen, his fists still poised mid-air, turned back to the business at hand of firing crisp jabs at his reflection. I just continued to throw air punches myself, only now with a slight smile. I wondered if this kid would even peg that show of fancy footwork as my own little homage to the great Muhammad Ali.

To me, The Shuffle exemplified everything wonderful and brash and revealing about Ali, the fighter and the man. It was a bold action followed by a little something to back it up, which wasn’t long in coming.

“A split second after that shuffle,” he once explained after executing The Shuffle donned in a full suit in front of TV cameras, “is a good punch.”

I was never brave enough to unleash The Shuffle during actual sparring because, well, I didn’t want to eat any more leather than I had to as a result of ruffling the feathers of my opponents. But whenever I did decide to bust out the flashy move during a workout, for that moment in some sweatbox of a gym in Florida, I could pretend I was The Greatest.

The Shuffle was all part of the whole Ali package. The big mouth. The cockiness. The words—so many words!—that sometimes came in the form of little poems designed to rattle, taunt and diminish upcoming opponents. Yet some of them were as deadly serious as can be, like when he announced his refusal to be drafted into military service and ultimately sent off to Vietnam by stating bluntly, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.”

Some rooted for him to win. Others prayed that he’d get beaten and bloodied whenever he stepped inside the ring. He was The People’s Champion. He was the Louisville Lip. He was adored; he was abhorred. Whatever the case, he inspired feelings of passion within us. Even people who never considered themselves fans of the sweet science knew all about him and his persona. Hell, people who weren’t even sports fans felt that they knew Ali intimately. For the length of his career and well beyond, he was not merely the face of boxing but one of the most charismatic and well-known humans on the planet.

And in that time he taught us more than a few life lessons.

So many strategies employed in the ring can be applied to life, like adjusting to whatever life throws at you, for one. Case in point: Zaire, 1974 — “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Or as many saw it: Ali vs. Certain Doom.

The undefeated George Foreman was a beast and a brawler, and his fists were capable of bringing down a fortress. More than a few folks actually feared for the 32-year-old Ali’s life. After only one round of the bout, Ali scrapped any hope of defeating the younger, fiercer Foreman by fighting his opponent’s fight. His tactic of leaning against the ropes and absorbing the insanely destructive blows that Foreman rained on him was a gamble to be sure, but it paid off in the end.

By the eighth round an exhausted Foreman had shot all his ammunition by firing off punch after punch after punch—and that’s when a suddenly rejuvenated Ali pounced. Coming off the ropes he unleashed a fury-driven combination that sent the dazed Foreman literally spinning to the canvas, where he was counted out. In his triumph, Ali both reinvented and redeemed himself. Through his courage and cunning, he became a mythological figure as big and bright as a constellation shining above the African sky.

And if anyone needs a lesson in resiliency, they need look no farther than Ali’s career and struggles. I’m not going to fight for you, Ali stoutly told the government when he was to be drafted for military service in 1967. Then you won’t fight at all, the government responded, and promptly stripped him of his title and banned him from the sport that was his love and his livelihood.

Ali lost three of his prime fighting years—an eternity for a boxer—but bounced back after his suspension to nab the NABF heavyweight title by stopping Jimmy Ellis. Though he suffered his first-ever loss to Joe Frazier during the “Fight of the Century” in New York City, he came back to defeat “Smokin’ Joe” and then dispatched him a second time in the famous “The Thrilla in Manilla” in the Philippines.

After losing the NABF belt to Ken Norton in 1973, he snatched it right back by beating Norton only months later. And though he won the world heavyweight title when he outsmarted Foreman in 1974, an aging Ali lost it to a young and hungry Leon Spinks four years later—only to win it back, at the age of 36, in a bout that went the distance with Spinks. Just when the world thought Ali might be down for good he kept storming back—and reigned three different times as champ.

He not only was a model of perseverance and tenacity, but showed us that if we truly believe in something, we should stand our ground and take our lumps in the process, come what may. Whether he was staring down the barrel of prison time for dodging the draft or staring across the ring at a 220-pound bruiser who was itching to mash him into a paste; Ali took it all on.

More often than not, he did it with a little flair. Whatever challenges we take on and however we want to leave our mark, we can emulate the champ by doing it all with some fervor, some fire and some zippity-zip-zip!

You can be a kid just starting out by snapping jabs in front of a mirror or an up-and-comer with something to prove to the world. You can be an aging David taking on a formidable Goliath or you can be a nonconformist who refuses to bend or break for anyone or anything. You can be a freethinker and a trailblazer, an activist and a poet, a butterfly and a bee.

There will never be another Muhammad Ali. But there can be a little Ali in all of us.

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