1. “I am America. I am the part 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.”
Aside from being the greatest boxer of our time, Muhammad Ali was an entertainer, a quote machine providing the press with copy for decades. Ali was a poet-athlete braggadocio, and the American lexicon adopted the Louisville Lip’s greatest taunts: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” comes to mind.
But he was also the most consequential sportsman of all time.
Ali rose to greatness in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, a symbol of black empowerment in a transitional age between the legal subjugation and acceptance of African Americans as valuable citizens. Especially early in his career, Ali’s bravado failed to endear him to white America. But he brushed them off and kept being the Greatest.
2. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me ‘n*****.’”
Ali took risks throughout his life.
He battled Sonny Liston (twice), Joe Frazier (thrice) and George Foreman in some of the most mythical bouts in sports history: The Fight of the Century, the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila, all of which tested his endurance, physically and emotionally.
But out of the ring, he risked everything for his principles.
After Ali, a Muslim, filed as a conscientious objector and refused to fight in the Vietnam war, the New York State Athletic Commission stripped him of his boxing license and heavyweight title. He never quit fighting, appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in his favor.
He won the title twice more.
3. “The word ‘Islam’ means ‘peace.’ The word ‘Muslim’ means ‘one who surrenders to God.’ But the press makes us seem like haters.”
Ali was never afraid to agitate.
Yet he was not immutable. Ali joined the Nation of Islam in the early ’60s and vocally advocated their militant rhetoric. But he converted to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975, then embraced Sufism later in life.
Ali realized remaining static closes yourself from your potential and positive change.
4. “I’ve wrestled with alligators; I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning. And throw thunder in jail. Just last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
Ali spat this rhyme in the lead-up to the Rumble in the Jungle. It’s a perfect example of his poetry and his cockiness.
Then again, is it cocky after you live up to your boasts?