Muhammad Ali makes it to London 2012: Why he’s the greatest athlete of all-time

by  Dr. Boyce Watkins

Muhammed Ali lighting the Olympic flame at the 1984 Olympics

He knew that his real power was not in his arms and legs, but understood the awesome ability of a great athlete to elevate his people and change the world.  That’s what true greatness is all about.

It was over 50 years ago that the great Muhammad Ali held up his own gold medal at the 1960 Olympics.  Ali would later go on to become the youngest heavyweight champion in history.   Ali showed up again at this year’s Olympic Games, in his old form, with the same old swag that made him the legend that he is today.  While he certainly can’t move and talk like he did as a young man, the world knows that on the inside, he’s still one of the most engaging figures in the world.

Ali wore a white suit during the ceremony and looked like a man who is tired and frail.  But his presence is powerful.   He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 30 years ago after being hit in the head so many times during his boxing career.  His journey is a warning to young fighters about staying in the sport too long.

Ali’s wife Lonnie was his savior.  A woman who’d admired him since she was a little girl stepped in when his last ex-wife abandoned him and took over his business empire.  She turned Ali from a tired, broke old athlete into the icon that he is today.  Lonnie’s work shows us that a great woman can make a man far better off than he was before.  She has truly been his guardian angel.

With Ali being from my hometown of Louisville, my relationship with him has been one that has lasted a lifetime.  I remember hearing stories from friends and relatives about Ali’s life as a young man, and I have his picture in my living room, next to my other adopted father, Malcolm X.  As a graduate student, I used to read stories about Ali’s life to give me inspiration to overcome the adversity in my own life.   My simple philosophy was “If he can overcome all of that, then I can fight through the racism in my own world.  These people can’t hold me back if I stick to what I believe in.”  So, I was one of those little boys that Ali inspired to realize his own potential and I thank God that he didn’t just live life for himself.

The Olympic appearance by Ali was to raise money for the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY.   There is also Generation Ali, a social media site to educate young people about the values that Ali embraced. This is the second major appearance by Ali, after his presence at the games in 1996 brought the crowd to their feet in tears.  That was 16 years ago, and at that time, he was able to actually walk up the steps and light the torch himself.

Most ironic about Ali’s appearance at the Olympics this year is that he was not quite welcome to the Olympics during the 1960s.  In 1968, during the black power protest by John Carlos and Tommy Smith, one of their demands was that Ali be reinstated as world boxing champ.  Ali’s title had been taken by the authorities, who wanted him to fight in the Vietnam War.

“When Ali put everything he achieved on the line in difference to his religion and political principles that got attention around the world,” said Sociologist Harry Edwards. “People eventually came to believe Ali was sincere and over time there developed a tremendous degree of unquestioned integrity about him.”

Ali shows all of us that if you stick with what you believe in and never give up, there is always a brighter day around corner.  He is also a clear reminder that a great athlete is more than just a man who can run and jump on the field.  Instead, he is a man who is willing to fight for something greater than himself.

That’s why, to this day, Muhammad Ali was a runaway favorite ahead of Michael Jordan in the Sports Illustrated vote for the greatest athlete of the last 100 years.  He didn’t dominate Jordan because of his skill.  Instead, Ali dominated Jordan because he was a greater man than Michael Jordan ever wanted to be.  He knew that his real power was not in his arms and legs, but understood the awesome ability of a great athlete to elevate his people and change the world.  That’s what true greatness is all about.

This article was first published at Kulture Kritic.

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Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition.

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