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Passing of Giants of the Human Spirit: Ten Days When Death Came Calling: Three More Transitions

June 17, 2016 by Herbert Daughtry

Part Thirteen

Just as I was completing the last articles on Afeni Shakur, there were three more transitions.

Around 2:00am, I heard the news: Muhammad Ali was dead. My mind immediately conjured up images, words, and actions. I thought of the last time I saw him. It was in East Orange, NJ at an anti-apartheid conference. Inspired by the courage of Winnie Mandela, my wife, Dr. Karen S. Daughtry, organized Sisters Against South-African Apartheid (S.A.S.A.A.), which was a co-sponsor of the conference. He showed the debilitating signs of Parkinson’s Disease. He went in the corner and started shadow boxing and grinning. Afterwards, he turned to me and said, “I never heard you preach. Can you preach?”

I came face to face, looked him in the eye, and I said, sternly, “Can you fight? I preach like you fight.”

He tightened his lips and shook his head from side to side, and with a twinkle in his eyes, said, “You are a ‘preaching so-and-so.’ You’re the greatest preacher in the world.”

In my mind, it is debatable whether he was the greatest prize fighter ever. I think of Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, and Jack Johnson. Each one came at a different time and under different circumstances against different opponents. So, it’s hard to pick out a fighter, baseball player, or a basketball player, and say that he was the greatest of all times. I think it would be closer to the truth to say, “In his time, Muhammad Ali was the greatest.” When all things are considered, obstacles, challenges, and contributions, Muhammad Ali would be, for me, and maybe, for most people, the greatest.

There were many ways in which he fought racism, both by what he did for others and what he didn’t do. I remember the late Gil Noble, the renowned TV host of “Like It Is,” telling me how he, along with many other newsmen, who were mostly white, were outside a restaurant, waiting for Muhammad Ali to finish eating so that they could have a press conference. Ali looked up and saw Gil, and beckoned him to sit with him. He wanted to give Gil a private interview. He said to Gil, “Remember what I have done for you, and you do the same for our people.” Stories like that abound.

One of his most courageous acts was his refusal to answer the draft. It cost him his championship, and he was incarcerated for five years during the prime years of his life. Just about everyone pleaded with him to join the Army. They would make special privileges for him; he would not do go anywhere near the fighting. Ali refused, stating, “No Vietcong ever called me a ‘nigger.'” Eventually, he was exonerated and resumed his boxing career.

The toughness, fortitude, and courage he exhibited in and out of the ring were unbelievable. He had four fights which conspicuously demonstrated these qualities.

-Joe Frazier
After Muhammad Ali had been beaten the first time, he came back to beat Joe twice.

– George Foreman, in the Rumble in the Jungle. In this fight, he made famous the Rope-a-Dope. Ray Robinson had used this ruse against Jake LaMotta years before Ali. The tactic is to position oneself against the ropes, and let the opponent tire himself out throwing punches. Then, when the opponent is exhausted, you begin to go on the attack. It’s a dangerous strategy. You might miscalculate. Your opponent might still be able to hit harder and longer than you had anticipated.

-The third fight was with Ken Norton. Mr. Norton broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw in early round. For the rest of the fight, Ali fought with blood in his mouth and in excruciating pain, but he still won the fight.

-Finally, there was a fight with Chuck Wepner (aka “The Bayone Bleeder”). He knocked Ali down with a vicious blow to the heart. Ali got up from the floor and won the fight. The courage, toughness, and resiliency were parts of his DNA, and they were manifested in all aspects of his life.

His daughter said that when he died all of his organs had shut down, but his heart kept beating for 30 minutes. Even with the dreaded Parkinson’s disease, Ali refused to retreat, hide, or quit fighting. For 30 years, he fought this monster. He made public appearances at multitude philanthropic causes. He continued to smile, be humorous and witty, and do his magic tricks until the end. Who can ever forget that memorable scene at the Olympics. There he was walking unsteadily to the pit, hands shaking, but still walking to light the flame. It was his biography in motion – his determination, resiliency, courage, perseverance, etc.

There are two lessons among many which stand out for me.

– Ali named himself, “The Greatest.” I teach and sermonize that God has given us the power to name ourselves. What we name ourselves, we can bring to external reality. I think it’s true that most people refuse to name themselves for whatever reason; name themselves disparagingly; or, are products of other people naming them. Muhammad Ali confirmed the universal principle that we can name ourselves, and eventually the world will acknowledge our names.

Larry Holmes, who was his sparring partner for years, said that Ali used to talk to himself in the training camps. He would say to himself, “I am the greatest.” Larry thought, at times, that Ali was losing his mind. It is instructive that most people don’t know Larry Holmes. Perchance, if he would have learned and followed Ali’s example, he would be called the greatest, too.

There’s one final story. Rev. Al Sharpton once said that Ali took him out to run as a part of his training. Ali said to his trainer, “I am doing 21 minutes.” He ran around the tracks several times, and said to his trainer, “Now, start counting.” Rev. Sharpton later asked him, “Why did he start counting after he ran around the tracks?” Ali responded, “I try to reach my goal of 21 minutes, even when I am exhausted.” What a revealing story! It gives us insight into the man, and his ability and determination to continue fighting even when he was hurt, humiliated, ridiculed, and rejected. When all things are considered, Muhammad Ali was the greatest.

… to be continued.