Ode to the Butterfly
Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer.
Muhammad Ali was a poet. At a Harvard lecture in 1975 Ali delivered the world’s shortest poem, completely devoid of noun or verbiage, but full of subtle meaning:
Ali took a simple boxing ring strategy – “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee” – and turned it into a metaphor for life. Like the best poets, Ali used language as a tool and a toy, manipulating and bending it so that everything that came out of his mouth was pure artistic expression: “It’s just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” Pure poetry.
Muhammad Ali was a renegade. Like a true revolutionary, he took a stand during tumultuous political times, sacrificing himself for a greater cause. Having achieved the heavyweight title in 1964, Ali took a political stand by refusing to serve in the Vietnam war. The result: a criminal conviction and the stripping of his title. At the height of his career, he conscientiously gave it all away. It was not until 1971, that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction, allowing him to return to the ring. When he regained the title three years later against George Foreman in the celebrated “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire (the location of the fight itself a political act), Ali’s redemption was complete.
Muhammad Ali was an artist. Inside the ring, whether he was rope-a-doping or floating or dancing, there was a creativity to the way he boxed. Like Jordan and McEnroe and Gretzky, Ali brought a sense of artistry to his sport. It’s an artistry missing in today’s world of UFC, MMA, and the brutish predictability of heavyweight boxing. The “Rumble in the Jungle” was a perfect example. Ali danced and shimmied and punched and took a beating in defeating a bigger, leaner and meaner George Foreman. It was a performance for the ages.
Muhammad Ali was a survivor. Inside the ring, he always got up, always refused to be counted out. And he was no different outside the ring. His 30-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease is well documented. It was sad to watch for so long this beautiful, tough man with the beautiful, sharp mind diminish before our eyes. It was irony of the cruellest kind. But it also allowed us to prepare for the inevitable, because for years all we have had are memories of the man that he was, of the only man who could call himself the greatest, while we all just nodded.
Muhammad Ali is a hero. Because he stood up for what’s right. Because he always got up. Because he made us feel. Because he was wise. Because he was a true original. Because he was the greatest.
Top Photo: By Bettmann. World heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali leaves the podium to do the ‘Ali Shuffle’ during his talk to students at Harvard University’s Burden Auditorium, June 04, 1975. Ali was invited to address the graduating seniors at Harvard Business School.