“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

I was floored this morning to learn Muhammad Ali passed away last night. The man was one of my Three Big Heroes I had growing up. The others were James Brown and the Jackson kids.

Sure, the man was an outstanding athlete, taking the world heavyweight championship at only 22, and remains the only three-time world heavyweight champion. But much of what made his life story epic took place outside of the ring. This was a man not afraid to forge his own path in the world, and willing to face the consequences of his decisions.

Malcolm X photographs Muhammad Ali after his defeat of Sonny Liston. Copyright: Bob Gomel. From Wikimedia Commons.

After he won the world heavyweight championship the first time in 1964, he was drafted into the military service (1967). He refused to go, saying that the war in Vietnam was unjust and he had “no quarrel with them Vietcong” and that to participate in the Vietnam war violated his religious beliefs. For standing for his principles, he was jailed for draft evasion and stripped of his championship title. Then as now, the best years of a professional athlete were few and brief; and he spent many of those sidelined, a convicted felon, banned from boxing in every state in the Union and denied a passport (so he could not fight overseas). He fought his conviction instead, all the way to the Supreme Court—and in 1971, his conviction was overturned. He then regained the heavyweight title in 1974, and successfully defended it in 1978.

Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to Muhammad Ali by President George W. Bush, 2006. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

During that time—the 70’s—he would embrace Islam. Deciding the name Cassius Clay did not fit who he was, so he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Later, in 2005, he would identify himself more specifically with Sufism—an Islamic mystical discipline; one of its more notable followers was the poet and theologian Rumi.

Another defining struggle would come after he retired from boxing in 1981. Sports physicians have long known that often athletes that walk off the field—or out of the ring—smiling and laughing and looking like a million dollars could still have suffered devastating injuries, whose effects may not become apparent until years later, until after they had left the sport altogether.

When I saw Ali carry the flag at the 2012 Olympics, barely able to stand, the contrast with the quick, frenetic, agile fighter I remembered from my youth was devastating—it hit me like one of his devastating left hook/left hook/right cross combinations. I would learn he was first diagnosed with Parkinsonism back in 1984, the result of repeated, near-invisible brain injuries suffered during Ali’s boxing career. He would spend the next few years of his life suffering from repeated infections; septic shock from the latest one was what took his life last night at 74.

Painting of Ali by pop artist John StangoOnce Muhammad Ali warned us to get used to an America with him in it. We had to get used to an America that had him in it. Now—unfortunately—we’ll have to get used to one without him.



UPDATE (6/7): In a recent statement to the press, Dr. Michael Okun, chairman of the department of neurology and medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, said that right now, it is impossible to say that Ali’s Parkinsonism was a direct result of his boxing career. Other neurologists have gone on record saying while head injuries from violent sports do increase the risk of neurological problems later in life, in many cases, like Ali’s, there is no clear-cut cause-and-effect link.

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