Editor’s note: Willie D is a member of the legendary platinum-selling rap group the Geto Boys, and writes Ask Willie D, a top-rated weekly advice column that appears in the Houston Press each Thursday. He is a former boxer and aficionado of the sport who in part credits his confidence in his own abilities to Muhammad Ali. This post originally appeared in African-American News & Issues, June 10, 2016.
When I heard that Muhammad Ali had died, tears welled up in my eyes, and my heart became heavy. I knew this day would come sooner or later — we all knew. But what a remarkably courageous fight he put up to stay with us for as long as he did after being diagnosed with a disease that would eventually claim victory over his life. The boxing icon died at the age of 74 on Friday, June 3, at a Phoenix-area hospital after being admitted for respiratory complications following a 35-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
As a former boxer and lifelong boxing enthusiast, I can recall countless moments of Ali’s greatness in the ring, even in defeat. Unlike today, where any ole bum might qualify for a shot at a world heavyweight title, and possibly win, Ali competed in an era that serves as the standard for boxing greatness. He fought the crème de la crème of heavyweights, guys who made the average Joe think to himself, “I could never do that. That guy would kill me.”
He annihilated the highly favored and skilled Sonny Liston to win his first title at the tender age of 22, then went on to have epic battles with boxing greats Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton and Larry Holmes, beating them all except Holmes. Not taking anything away from Holmes, but the Holmes fight don’t really count because it was a money grab. Ali had passed his prime, his motor skills were slower and his speech had already begun to slur because he was in the early stages of his illness.
Dissonant to my childhood friend, three-time boxing world champion Reggie “Sweet” Johnson, I was not always an Ali fan. When he fought Leon Spinks the first time in February 1978, I didn’t like Ali because of his penchant for bragging. So I was ecstatic when Spinks beat him. However, the celebration was short-lived because just seven months later, Ali regained his crown, defeating Spinks with a 15-round unanimous decision. About this time is when I began to warm up to Ali as a fighter. You see, coming from where I’m from, Fifth Ward, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Houston and a place Ali frequented when he lived here, you get used to making adjustments. Consequently, I respected Ali’s ability to rededicate himself to his craft to achieve victory.
The more I watched Ali, the more I gravitated towards his energy. Yeah, he was a big talker, but so are most fighters. The difference was Ali could back it up with frequent precision, plus he was entertaining.
Muhammad Ali could have likely run a Fortune 500 Company. He was a marketing genius who could sell a white suit to a mechanic. We wanted to hear what rhyme he would bless us with next and we wanted to see if his prediction to knock out his opponent in a designated round would hold up. It didn’t matter if you were a supporter or detractor; we were all punch drunk off of the phenomenon known as Muhammad Ali.
Shortly after becoming a fan of Ali the boxer, I began to study him and became enamored with Ali the man. Ali’s talent in the ring earned him respect, but what he did outside the ring earned him endearment, and is the reason why there is such an outpouring of international tributes from world leaders, celebrities, fans and even his opponents.
In a world where many people shamelessly choose commerce over conscience with alacrity, Ali remained fundamentally rooted in his beliefs. Sure he was a great boxer, but what impressed me, and other Ali admirers, most about him was his moral absolutes and his willingness to accept whatever consequences came with them. In 1966, the year I was born, and two years after upsetting Sonny Liston, Ali announced that he would not enter the United States military to serve in the Vietnam War because of his religious beliefs. As a result, he was eventually arrested and found guilty of draft evasion, and stripped of his title. Although an appeals court ruled in his favor four years later, he lost some of the best years of his career for the decision, not to mention millions of dollars.
In 2002, when Ali received an invitation by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to have his star etched in the ground, he initially declined the offer, stating [that] out of respect for the Prophet Muhammad, he didn’t want his name to be walked on by “people who have no respect for me.” The star was subsequently mounted on a wall just off the Walk of Fame, near the entrance of the Dolby Theater, where the Academy Awards are held each year.
Ali not only spoke up for black people, he was a voice and a beacon of hope for the poor, the underserved and disenfranchised communities around the world. He often fought in underdeveloped countries, in some measure to bring awareness to them. He was a humanitarian and philanthropist who made international trips as a goodwill ambassador to tumultuous countries on behalf of the United States. Following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, in which American hostages were captured, in 1990, Ali used his influence to travel to Iraq on his own accord to negotiate the successful release of 15 American hostages.
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Ali was one of the few celebrities, black or otherwise, who had the courage to speak out against racism and inequality in America. He showed star athletes, and all celebrities, that we didn’t have to just take the money and run. He taught us that we could use our platforms to bring awareness to social injustices, be a voice for the voiceless and unite people. What made Ali so admired was not the fact that he had the grit to speak out, it was how much he had to lose, how well he articulated his message, and the backdrop against which he first began to speak out. This was a demonically dangerous time in American history: the turbulent '60s, a time when lynching a black person was considered to be a social event, and civil rights leaders were being assassinated left and right. Because he cared, he dared not to be silent about human suffering.
I’m a dreamer. Like many people, I have those crazy reoccurring dreams of falling, flying, being chased and losing my teeth. I don’t know what they are supposed to mean, but I do know the meaning of one dream that I can’t shake. It’s the same one Ali had. The one where all humankind is united through faith and love.
Muhammad Ali fought one helluva fight in doing his part in getting us closer to the manifestation of that dream. Now the final bell has rung for the Greatest of All Time, but he will never be counted out. Rest easy, champ!
Ali's public memorial service, from Louisville's KFC Yum! Center, begins at 1 p.m. today and will be streamed live by several news organizations, including CBS News.