On Muhammad Ali

I never really spent time thinking about Muhammad Ali. Of course I knew who he was, I knew about his drive and determination, and his desire to push himself further. What I did not know, and perhaps this is because I was born in 1995, was Ali’s fight’s outside the ring.

Vox recently published this excellent video about the life of Muhammad Ali:

What I didn’t know about Ali are perhaps his most defining attributes. He emphasized living a moral life. He was perhaps one of the most prominent people to do so. He used his prominence to advocate for tolerance, understanding and above all a focus on morality.

Race Relations and Draft Dodgers

Ali could have given in to the draft, many people did. He could have burned his draft card or exploited loopholes. He could have left the country. However, he did none of those things. Instead opting to fight the draft head on.

In the process he lost his career, livelihood and title. Many weaker people would have given in, but not Ali. People refuse to do things for lots of different reasons. Some valid, others not. If Ali objected to something it was principled and focused. He made clear his intentions and his reasons.

His intentionality comes from his principles. His perspective as a black American born in the South in the forties places morals in check. The world becomes more clear than it could ever be when there exist extremes. To Ali, race relations aren’t a question of perspective, or heritage. They are not a grey area. To be clear, there are grey areas, but in order to consider fighting in the muck, we should first fight in the steady ground.

Muhammad Ali’s fights are rooted in a principled way of viewing the world, and principles are an incredibly powerful mechanism for change. Ali’s words reflect an intent to push beyond.

When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts.

The goal for Ali, both in training and, I would hypothesize, in life is to fight for a moral view of the world.

Fight Frameworks

For Ali and many other athletes, their sport informs their way of viewing the world. Similarly a man with a hammer sees all his problems as nails. This is generally seen as a detriment, not a benefit. Generally I would agree, but there is something special about boxing that requires extra consideration.

I like to think of the special mindset boxing places a boxer in as a Fight Framework. What makes boxing unique? More specifically what did Ali take from boxing to inform his view of the world?

To start boxing has clear expectations and rules. There is a defined space, the ring, in which a match occurs. Once you’re in the ring, you’re in it till the end. Importantly the result of the match is painfully physical, you feel the result of a bad fight more viscerally then you do in other activities. In a very real sense you’re putting a great deal on the line.

After the match you can ask yourself, “Was I good enough?” and have a definitive answer. There is no ambiguity regarding your own performance, and in this sense there are very clear rewards, and just yourself to blame for a poor fight, and yourself to praise for a good one. You can always ask yourself if you could have done more, and the answer is always yes. In fact in boxing, this is the only thing under your own control.

A boxer enters the ring, and is tested. They leave the ring bruised, and some never come back. The good boxers do, because they know what it means to best competitors with sheer force of will and unbridled confidence.

Ali is unique because not only did he use this mindset in regards to boxing, but also to social issues. Muhammad Ali’s moral framework guides his will.

Last night I had a dream, When I got to Africa, I had one hell of a rumble. I had to beat Tarzan’s behind first, For claiming to be King of the Jungle. For this fight, I’ve wrestled with alligators, I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning And throw thunder in jail. You know I’m bad. just last week, I murdered a rock, Injured a stone, Hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick. I’m so fast, man, I can run through a hurricane and don’t get wet. When George Foreman meets me, He’ll pay his debt. I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree. Wait till you see Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali (1942 - 2016)