The world lost one of its genuine heroes last week when Muhammad Ali passed away. The greatest boxer the world has ever known was a personal inspiration to me, for reasons that go well beyond his impact on the sport, and I pay tribute to him in my upcoming book, 64 Shots: Leadership in a Crazy World. (I have a precious pair of his signed gloves.)
I’ve long believed that revolution begins with language. Change the language and you can change everything. Ali did just that. A grandson of a slave, Cassius Marcellus Clay knew how to use words to change people’s perception. Prior to Clay’s arrival, the image of the black athlete was meek, emasculating, deferential. Not so, for “The Louisville Lip,” who, barely 20, taunted his opponents and the media, inviting all to glory in his youth, his physical beauty, and the indubitable fact that he was, in fact, “the greatest.” (Apart from everything else, Ali just might have been our first great rap artist. Indeed, Ali recorded several records in the early 1960s; his 1964 cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is not to be missed.)
The champ knew the power of language, of names. Immediately after winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston at the age of 22 (a bout for which Ali was considered a seven-to-one underdog), Ali rejected his “slave name” and converted to the nation of Islam. Like Mark Twain, like Bob Dylan, Ali was a self-invented American who transcended his own origins and created himself, primarily through language.
There would be many battles after Liston: getting stripped of the title for refusing to serve in the Army on the grounds of conscientious objection (“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” Ali famously said); the epic bouts against George Foreman and Joe Frazier that took on the shadings of modern-day myth; the grace with which Ali handled his later battle with Parkinson’s disease, which, in a terrible irony, robbed the great man of the fluency of his speech.
But in the end, Ali—who at one time was the single most recognizable figure on the planet—was bigger than words, more powerful than fists. As he once said: “Boxing was nothing. It wasn’t important at all. Boxing was just meant as a way to introduce me to the world.” People didn’t know what hit them. They still don’t.