Muhammad Ali and Predictions

Historical Marker outside Muhammad Ali's Boyhood Home

Historical Marker outside Muhammad Ali’s Boyhood Home in Louisville, Kentucky.

On Friday, June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali finished his last fight and left us. His life and how he lived it offered many lessons. Here’s one on making predictions about another’s life. 

Late on the evening of his death and the following Saturday, social media began trending with “#GOAT” in honor of Ali. In sports jargon, “goat” is not something associated with someone considered the Greatest; rather, the “goat” is the player blamed for a loss. But, in reference to Ali, “#GOAT” stood for “Greatest Of All Time.”

That was a title Ali gave himself early in his career, but then his actions and victories in and out of the ring would show it was justified. Before addressing this self-fulfilling prophecy, first a digression on the connection I had with Ali.

Late Night TV in a Delivery Room

Ali was one of the few individuals who had worldwide fame. The outpouring of grief and tributes reflect the number of lives he touched. I have two memories that serve as my connection to the Champ.

Both of my children chose to begin their arrivals into this world in the wee hours of the morning, as many pregnancies are wont to do. Happening in the aughts (or whatever the 2000’s will become referred to as), it was before the distractions afforded by smart phones, wifi, and the never-ending stream of content to view while wiling away the time as a relatively useless member of the “birthing team,” as non-medically-trained fathers entirely are.

Fortunately, though, there was ESPN Classic.

When Juliet was born in 2004, as her mother labored, I sat bedside watching the limited number of channels on the hospital cable system. Then, I came upon an ESPN Classic rebroadcast of Ali v. Foreman, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle.” As Juliet came nearer to being born, I watched Ali do the “rope-a-dope,” leaning against the ropes to allow Foreman–the more powerful boxer–to punch himself out, exhausting himself, and providing the chance for Ali to land a knockout in the eighth round.

Nineteen months later, there we were again in the labor & delivery ward for the arrival of James. There again, I sat, useless, watching the limited cable TV offerings. And, there again, I was thankful for ESPN Classic. This time it was the “Thrilla in Manila.” This is considered by many to be the greatest boxing match ever and I enjoyed watching Ali’s Greatness a second time while awaiting my second child.

On Making Predictions

Throughout his boxing career, Ali was famous for his alliterative, eloquent grandstanding and taunting leading up to a fight. His fast verbal dexterity outside the ring matched the speed of his punches and footwork in the ring. One of his common tactics was to call the round in which he would knock his opponent out. While not always exactly correct with the prediction, he was right often enough.

In reflecting on Ali’s passing, though, it made me think differently about predictions, specifically on what predictions would have been made about Ali’s life before he attained being the #GOAT.

Race, class, & segregation

Ali's Boyhood Home, Louisville, Ky.

Ali’s Boyhood Home, Louisville, Ky.

Though Ali was a world citizen, he first was a Louisvillian. Ali’s boyhood home is in West Louisville, the section of town historically minority-majority, and specifically African-American-majority. In the reporting following his passing, local news vans set up outside the home to capture the tributes and pilgrimages many locals were making to this home, one which I made myself.

In 2012, a historical marker was placed to note the location’s significance, and just weeks before his death, the house was opened to the public as a museum.

Looking at just the house, I doubt anyone would expect greatness to exit its front door, much less that a child who grew up in it would become the Greatest Of All Time.

Instead, given the racial segregation and discrimination, the odds were stacked against Ali to be the Greatest in almost anything. Rather, the prediction more likely to come true would have been that Ali would never leave the West End, much less travel the world. And, those with a more racist view would have predicted even worst outcomes for his life, involving crime, prison, and even murder.

Lest that last prediction seem bigoted in its own right, consider that when Ali returned to Louisville after winning the Olympic Gold Medal, he was denied service at a segregated lunch counter.

Sadly, this was the world Ali grew up in–and sadder still it remains much of the challenges still in our hometown.

So, looking at that modest home in West Louisville, I can confidently say it’s impossible that anyone would have predicted a young boy would grow into a man revered around the world as the Greatest.

Impossible because before there was Ali no athlete was ever considered worldwide as the Greatest. He invented that accolade. And, he earned it.

Disability & Predictions

In the aftermath of his boxing career, though, all that had led up to him being The Greatest began to be stripped away from him. His physical prowess and rhythmic elocution began to degrade as Parkinson’s disease eroded his physical ability to move and speak.

And, here’s were Ali defied all the predictions.

Parkinson’s, a disease characterized by tremors, would have caused most to think Ali’s Greatness was gone.

Then, in 1996, when the United States hosted the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, who was high above the stadium of the opening ceremonies to light the Olympic Cauldron? Ali. There he stood, revealed in a great surprise moment. His left arm trembled, but Ali’s right arm resolutely held aloft the Olympic Torch to light the flame that would stay lit throughout the games.

Like his great fights in the 1960’s and ’70’s, here was the Champ decades later still inspiring others.

Something few would have predicted.

Ali would go on in the final two decades of his life continuing to inspire. While Parkinson’s had severely diminished his ability to speak, Ali still communicated. This is shown in the video of Ali receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Note his response to President Bush’s playful act as though he was ready to spar with Ali:

Humility & Ali

In reflecting on Ali’s life, then, it leads me to consider something counter-intuitive: in thinking about someone known as The Greatest, his life provides a lesson on Humility.

How we should all be humble when looking upon another life and predicting what it will amount to.

And, particularly, when looking upon someone with a disability, how we should be cautious in predicting a limited life.

Ali’s life is a lesson that one’s race, neighborhood, or disability is not an automatic predictor of how great that person is or how great they can become.

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