“If you’re not humble, life will visit humility upon you.”
Offering his bit of knowledge on boxing, Ernest Hemingway wrote, “If you fight a great left-hooker, sooner or later he will knock you on your deletion. He will get the left out where you can’t see it, and in it comes like a brick. Life is the greatest left-hooker so far..”
As Muhammad Ali approached his late thirties, he had by then taken too many hits in the ring. Boxing was becoming increasingly dangerous for him, as those around him would notice. He started to move less smoothly, speak more slowly, and the twitching in his hands was getting harder to ignore as time dragged on.
“How do you feel about physicians saying that you have brain damage?”, Ali was asked in an interview.
“Brain damage..” Ali responded, “Sitting here, do I sound like I have brain damage?”
“No,” said the interviewer.
“I think I sound more intelligent than anybody who would answer your questions, and I don’t care who you talk to, your boxer, politician, president, mayor, governor; I don’t think anybody on earth could answer more better or more precise than me.”
Just about a year ago after a fight, Ali collapsed on a table. He had a towel draped across his chest, and his father, Cash Clay stood by his side. Ali closed his eyes and placed his hand on his head, trying to soothe a great pain. While he had escaped defeat in the ring as he often did, he could not escape the damage. “The twilight zone, it’s really coming up on me now,” he said. “I can feel it in my bones.”
Cash told him, “Quit, son, before you get hurt.”
But Ali couldn’t do it. He softly said to his father, “I’m on the tightrope.”
It was always difficult for Muhammad Ali to admit defeat. After all, it was his cosmic self-belief and defiance that made him “The Greatest”, as he loved to call himself. Time and again, he pushed himself to win fights in the ring — He would train hard, publicly taunt his opponents and indulge in his own greatness. But he would slowly learn that it doesn’t work the same way with physical health.
“You start punching or I’m going to stop it,” yelled Angelo Dundee, Ali’s trainer. Ali was fighting against Larry Holmes. Ali had only landed 12 shots, while Holmes landed 141.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Ali said.
The crowd began to boo, and while Ali was used to being booed, it was usually because of his abrasive personality, his politics, his religion, or his arrogant clowning — Only this time, it was due to his sheer lack of ability.
Some time later, a few editorials were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, calling for boxing to be abolished. One editorial argued that in other sports, injury is an undesired byproduct, but “the principal purpose of a boxing match is for one opponent to render the other injured, defenseless, incapacitated, unconscious.”
Ali, interviewed on TV, was asked on his opinion about the editorial, whether it was possible that he suffered brain damage from boxing. Appearing exhausted and unfocused, he faintly replied, “It’s possible.”
As his boxing days ended, Ali was often bored and depressed. To entertain himself, he would pull out his personal phone book and call his friends — Sometimes, he would pause in the middle of his conversations, having forgotten whom he was speaking with. He would spend the rest of the day watching his younger self in his early fights and interviews, reminiscing his glory days.
Ali seemed to develop a clearer sense of humility as he became more actively involved in charity events, as well as performing the obligatory Hajj. Being closer to his religious faith, he learned to truly appreciate having enough. The writer Thomas Hauser said of Ali in an interview, “When Muhammad started to get sick and realized he was no longer invulnerable, he started to get scared. That was one factor that led to his taking his religion more seriously.”
He had also gained the strength to apologize for the many hurtful things he said about his opponents. Apologizing for calling fellow boxer Joe Frazier an Uncle Tom and saying that Frazier was too dumb and ugly to be champion, Ali remarked, “I said a lot of things in the heat of the moment that I shouldn’t have said. Called him names that I shouldn’t have called him. I apologize for that. I’m sorry. It was all meant to promote the fight.”
When he was once asked who had helped him most in his career, Ali responded, “In my career, everything…” He paused and smiled, “Allah. All my success, all my protection, all my fearlessness, all my victories, all my courage : Everything came from Allah.”
The story of Muhammad Ali reminds us that we don’t truly own everything that we own. At some point, we will be reminded of the fleeting nature of our belongings.
Maybe you’ve lived in your beloved home for more than 30 years, and suddenly certain circumstances arise and you have to sell it off. Your favorite watch breaks and shatters beyond repair. A loved one passes away.
It applies to our talents as well. You could be a great guitarist, for example, and one morning you could wake up not being able to use your fingers anymore.
For Ali, boxing was his greatest asset, his identity. When his ability to fight was taken away, he remained an inspiration for us — Not in brute strength, but in humility and contentment.
Writing for GQ, Peter Richmond proffered, “Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake…
“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he had ever been before.”
Remind yourself that everything you have in your life — Your talents, your skills, your human abilities, your possessions, your friends and family, are all but a loan to you. It’s part of nature that they will be taken away and returned to the One who blessed you with them.
It’s just a simple thought for the day, but think about the things, or people, that you’ve been taking a little bit for granted. Think on what you can do to put your possessions to their best use, or to show the people in your life how much you care for them.
Hopefully, we don’t have to wait until they’re gone, for us to do any of these things.