This writing appeared on the boxing website ucnlive.com as part of a monthly column series. The published version can be seen here: http://ucnlive.com/muhammad-ali-and-the-character-of-men/
Ali and The Character of Men
‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives’ - Jackie Robinson
It’s hard to think of another sport that depends more on the character of its participants than boxing. Courage, heart, determination, grit, honesty, and integrity are all qualities that become ‘naked to the world’ once the first round bell rings. And with no ‘team’ to come to his aid - a boxer is left all alone to deal with the inevitable troubles of in ring combat. However, it seems appropriate that ‘in ring’ character be separated from ‘outside the ring’ character. After all, there are plenty of fighters who’ve displayed the highest measure of ‘in ring’ character only to stumble beneath the weight of everyday life outside the ring.
‘In ring’ character is ‘hot’ in a sense - forged in the heat of battle. ‘Outside the ring’ character is ‘cool’ in a sense - forged over time through self reflection and external forces. One could argue that the latter informs the former to a degree. One of the main ‘forces’ that help shape outside the ring character is the society in which a fighter lives. Whatever a society places value in, the wealth it maintains, the morality it emphasises (or doesn’t emphasise), its standing in regards to other societies - all of these things help determine how an overall society informs the character of its members. Issues of class, race, and power operate under this broad umbrella and exert their influence as well.
Muhammad Ali was considered ‘The Greatest’ because his ‘in ring’ character was equaled or even surpassed by his ‘outside the ring’ character. Whether or not Ali’s outside the ring character was a product of his time can be debated. The 60’s were a time of great cultural, racial, and political upheaval. Basically, if you were a public figure of a certain age (let alone the Heavyweight Champion of the World) the society at large was going to force a certain kind of introspection that would usher you down the road of character development. And with no internet, cable TV, or social media to seduce one into the proverbial ‘ditch’ on the side of the road - logging miles on the way to your destination might have been a bit easier.
Yet, Ali simply might have been one of those ‘special’ individuals who seem preordained for historical significance. The ‘it’ factor was undeniable - the looks, the charisma, etc. Yet it was Ali’s ability to make decisions that would work against his material interests that were the true mark of his character. Many disagreed with Ali’s decision to oppose the Vietnam War - but we must remember that this was a ‘political’ decision. You can disagree with a man’s political views while respecting his character and integrity. General Robert E. Lee chose to fight for his state (Virginia) rather than the country he was sworn to protect - because his sense of honor demanded it. Winston Churchill stood politically alone for years as he warned against the rise of Nazism in Europe; because his beliefs required it. George H.W. Bush raised taxes after he swore not to; because he believed it was necessary for the fiscal health of the country. Barack Obama pushed through Obamacare despite the certainty it would cost his party control of Congress - because he felt it was the right thing to do. Whether or not you support the ‘political’ nature of these decisions; whether these were the ‘right’ decisions or not - it’s hard to not respect a man who searched his soul and made a choice that would cost him dearly.
Sacrificing material wealth, status, or political gain is an action that only individuals of tremendous character can undertake. For people like this, sleeping in an ordinary bed with a clear soul is more important than sleeping on a gold plated bed with a tainted conscience. This kind of sacrifice also requires a certain kind of self confrontation. Every man has two inner modes of being locked in constant opposition. One side seeks status, acceptance, sex, achievement, money, praise, and conquest. The other seeks deeper meanings, spiritual peace, a sense of purpose, and maybe even a glimpse of God. It is very easy to indulge in the first; for it lends itself to a man’s primal impulses and addictions. It is very hard to cultivate the second; for it requires work and an often (seemingly) endless inner interrogation. Muhammad Ali struck me as someone who undertook this inner battle every single day of his life. He wasn't a saint and he wasn't perfect. But by choosing the hard path of inner confrontation; he impacted the lives of millions.
It would have been interesting to see if Ali could have maintained his way of introspection had he come of age in our current times. One could imagine this young, brash, exciting, US Olympic fighter named Cassius Clay exploding on the scene - with Vines and Instagram videos of his antics playing on smartphones daily. He would undoubtedly secure endorsements, and a lucrative contract from either Al Haymon, Bob Arum, or Oscar De La Hoya. An exclusive network deal with either HBO or Showtime would be sure to follow. The culture overall would have been much more accepting of young Cassius. Trash talking, showmanship, and ‘spectacle’ are all broadcast daily from news and sports outlets alike. The ‘bad guy’, the ‘outsider’, or the ‘rebel’ are all embraced by the mainstream.
With wealth, status, and acceptance heaped upon him; Cassius Clay’s gnawing inner desire for something more might be pushed that much deeper underground. Maybe his managers or ‘advisors’ would counsel him to engage the issues of the day in a ‘safe’ manner. Maybe he'd be advised to attend a glitzy fundraiser, or post a hashtag. Or maybe he’d wear a t-shirt and dare to post a photo on Instagram. All of these ‘actions’ are safe; no sacrifice required. They don't cost the individual anything. They are feelings and sympathies; not exercises in character. They are a far cry from the day in day out actions of someone who’s own self confrontation has left him no choice but to ‘live a certain way’. They are the actions of someone who will post something on social media about ‘justice’ and ‘rights’ one hour; followed by posts with money stacks, cars, and women the next.
As was stated before, the time in which an individual lives helps shape his or her character. The 60’s were roiling with the fires of political and racial strife. The embers of those flames never fully died; and have rekindled at different times over the decades - including now. When Muhammad Ali died earlier this year, countless athletes and fighters spoke of the ‘inspiration’ he provided them. Yet I'm not sure if they were inspired by what Ali actually did, or by the popular ‘image’ of Ali. For if they were truly ‘inspired’ by ‘The Greatest’ they would enact his greatest lesson. A life of introspection, honor, and belief can lead to a life of great character. And it can allow one to make choices that lead to material want, yet enrich the soul. It is true that when you do this, you will make enemies. Yet at the end of the day many that didn't agree with your stance, will at least respect it.
There are many athletes today who claim the lineage of Ali yet refuse to use their power, wealth, and influence to engage the politics of the nation. It was fitting that probably the most well known fighter of the last decade (Floyd Mayweather) decided to post an Instagram tribute to Muhammad Ali after his death. It was even more fitting that of all the Ali pictures he could post; he posted one of ‘The Greatest’ in a bank vault surrounded by stacks of money. That kind of superficial ‘money team’ connection is a great metaphor for where Ali’s legacy stands during the cultural turmoil of the present. Instead of ‘ain't no Vietcong ever called me nigger’ we've got ‘come to my strip joint that’s opening soon’. Yes, you may not have agreed with him - but at least Ali was man enough to stand for something. And at least he tried his best to positively impact the lives he encountered - which is more than can be said for most who’ve followed in his wake.