Not too long ago I wrote about the loose usage of the "Greatest of All Time" tag on some of the today's athletes. The term seems to be used to describe every player that's on a hot streak or stands temporarily above the rest. The overuse diminishes the depth of what the "greatest" actually means.
As of last Friday, we can lay that to rest.
The absolute "Greatest of All Time," Muhammad Ali, died at 74, taking with him to the grave the title that he so rightfully deserves to hold.
The first memory I have of Ali outside of the controversy of his name change and corresponding conversion to the nation of Islam was the "Fight of The Century" against reigning heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. We were living in Brazil at the time so our ability to watch the fight live or even on "Wide World of Sports" was non-existent. Our family sat around the radio and listened to the round-by-round coverage until the news of the shocking defeat of Ali came to us.
As an army brat growing up, the son of a decorated soldier who did a tour in the Korean War and two stints in the Vietnam War, it was difficult to root for a guy who considered himself a "conscientious objector," a term I couldn't fully comprehend at 9 years old. To me at the time it was tough to understand why my family had to sacrifice the time with our father to go and defend the principles of freedom while this celebrated athlete got the attention and the riches associated with celebrity.
But something was different about Muhammad Ali.
Despite the internal conflict from two sides of a controversial war, I was drawn to everything that Ali did like a moth to a flame. There was something about his charisma and his brashness that caught my attention. In a time when there were only three television channels and not much else to command our attention — no video games, no pay channels, no tablets or iPhones — Muhammad Ali was self-made entertainment.
Besides the fact that the Ali/Wepner fight was the impetus for the "Rocky" movie franchise, there were so many contributions that Ali made to sports that it would be hard to lay them all out in the space I have for my column. But some of the things that I learned from him stick with me to this day.
Be confident in your own abilities. When you put the time in to prepare yourself, don't make excuses or apologize for how good you are. If your detractors don't like it the solution is very simple; tell them to go and outwork you. Ali didn't get to be great overnight. He put hours of work in the gym and on the pavement to sharpen his punching speed and give his legs the endurance he'd need to take on the world's best fighters.
If you talk trash, you better be able to back it up. I know a lot of sports fans have little room for the trash talking of Ali, Deion Sanders, and Richard Sherman, but they are some of my favorites for that very reason. I love someone who is confident in their abilities, talks a little smack to their opponent and then backs it up with performance. The knucklehead who talks trash without the ability to back it up is just that, a knucklehead.
But if you consistently deliver on your promise of greatness, which Ali did, it's hard to argue with your success.
Be humble. It's hard to imagine how someone can be so outspoken about their abilities yet stay humble but that's just what Ali did. When he lost (which wasn't that often) you didn't hear him talk about the opponent cheating or the poor officiating or that he had an injury that prevented him from continuing to fight. He always seemed to give the respect his opponent deserved.
If you get knocked down, no matter how many times it happens, dust yourself off and get back to work. Whether in sports or in life, there are times when we don't come out on top. The only one that keeps us down is ourselves.
Get yourself up, get back in the gym, and get back to work.
No matter how popular, stand on your principles. Ali took an unpopular stance at a very difficult time in our country, but history shows that his actions represented the thoughts of many of our youth during that time. He just was the one bold enough to take a stand.
One of my favorite Ali quotes that I keep close to my hearts is "I don't have to be what you want me to be."
And he didn't. He did it his way.
Because he undoubtedly was the Greatest of All Time.