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Life Lessons from Muhammad Ali

by David Jacobson


Muhammad Ali, who passed away Friday, embodied "Better Athletes, Better People." He was sport and the best it represents, especially as a means and medium for elevating the human spirit.

Ali came into my consciousness around the time of the first Frazier fight in 1971. As a six-year-old, new to sports and new to reading, the coverage in my father's Time magazine fascinated me.

Ali's skill and courage were inspiring. Plus, he was against the war, just like the cool, older kids in our Chicago suburb, who had stood up for their beliefs around the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Highlights from earlier fights on TV showed fast-flying fists, flawless footwork, sublime style and a way with words, from rhymes about ring results to his Vietnam views. Between prowess and politics, I was an Ali guy.

Three years after the first Frazier fight, we'd moved to a Milwaukee neighborhood where most of my friends were Black (as we all said then). Identification with Ali deepened, because his struggle was rooted in racism. Being targeted and racially terrorized in his hometown of Louisville in the early 1960s was part of what had brought Ali to the Nation of Islam and conscientious objection to military service, which led to a felony conviction (eventually overturned) and being stripped of his boxing championship.

In 1974, Ali's drive to regain that title from George Foreman enthralled us 10-year-olds. We imagined ourselves as him when our playground rough-housing inevitably devolved into fist-fights.

But we came together on fight night and our young minds took in some critical information that even then helped make us Better Athletes, Better People:

  • There is more to sport than the competition itself, as seen in Ali's personal political struggle playing out in the ring in Africa, at least mentally reconnecting millions of African-Americans with their roots.
  • If you believe that your struggle is righteous and you persevere, you may win hearts and minds, from America — where public opinion of the war changed in the decade between Ali’s two championship ascents — to the stadium in Africa, echoing with pro-Ali chants during the match.
  • One can withstand much more than one thinks. Ali willingly, purposefully took an incredible beating from Foreman as a strategy to exhaust Foreman and leave him vulnerable to Ali's counter. Ali's example taught millions then, and maybe billions by now, that they too can withstand most punches life throws at them. And even if they do not emerge clearly victorious, the only real defeat is in surrender.

When Ali felled Foreman, joy in the Black community rivaled the times when Joe Louis and Jesse Owens disproved Hitler's beliefs. It was not so much about Ali beating Foreman as about Ali beating the odds. If Ali could do it, my friends thought, maybe they could, too. Maybe anything really is possible.

Ali boxed for about six more years after that galvanizing event and continued in his role as a global ambassador and purveyor of joy and hope. Throughout his athletic career — and in the decades that followed, which were marked by roughly 30 years bravely battling Parkinson's Disease — Ali shared with us the full power of sport to uplift our individual spirits and in so doing uplift the spirit of humankind as a whole.

David Jacobson was the Positive Coaching Alliance Senior Marketing Communications and Content Manager for over 12 years. He is a lifelong sports fan and participant, and even now enjoys playing pick-up basketball. David coached and officiated primarily baseball, softball and basketball, whether his two (now grown) children were on the teams or not.

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