Sometimes, we measure our gains by taking the measure of our losses.
In the span of two-and-a-half years, three hugely influential men have passed from my life — my father, B.B. King, and now Muhammad Ali. There was a point at which I couldn’t imagine my life without the presence of any of them. Now I have to live my life, to create my life, without all of them. But they left me well-prepared.
I learned one valuable lesson from Muhammad Ali on two different occasions: The first was on March 8, 1971, which happened to be the same year I saw B.B. King for the first time. Ali was fighting Joe Frazier for the first time. Frazier was the champion. Both men were undefeated. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, anxious with anticipation. I heard the paperboy deliver our newspaper before dawn the next morning. I ran downstairs to grab the paper, eager to see if Ali had prevailed. He hadn’t won the fight. I couldn’t know till years later that he had, indeed, prevailed — that he always would prevail.
After Ali won a narrow decision from Earnie Shavers on September 29, 1977, Ali’s personal physician for more than 15 years, Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, submitted the results of neurological and physiological tests that had been performed on Ali to Ali and the members of his entourage. Dr. Pacheco is reputed to have said: “This is what’s happening to you. If you want to continue, you have no shot at a normal life.” When neither Ali nor anyone in his camp responded, Dr. Pacheco walked away from Ali, a man he loved dearly.
The second lesson I learned from Ali came on October 3, 1980. I went to the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut, to watch Ali, on a closed-circuit feed, come out of retirement to fight Larry Holmes. Ali’s lethargy was evident from the outset. Even though Holmes showed restraint, at times motioning to the referee to step in and stop the fight, he nevertheless put a beating on Ali woeful enough to cause the fight to be finally, mercifully stopped in the 10th round.
Ali would not regain his youth. The Phoenix would not rise from the ashes. We would not witness a miracle. I was devastated. But, I learned, Muhammad Ali was not. Nor would he ever be.
He got in the ring one more time, to fight Trevor Berbick in 1981. He lost again. Afterward, he retired for good at age 39. The next year, he was officially diagnosed with the Parkinsonism Dr. Pacheco had seen coming five years before, the price Ali paid, no doubt, for the fearlessness that compelled him to take so many big shots from so many big punchers for so long, the curse of his iron chin. But he wasn’t devastated.
After his diagnosis, he told The New York Times, “I’m in no pain. A slight slurring of my speech, a little tremor. Nothing critical. If I was in perfect health — if I had won my last two fights — if I had no problem, people would be afraid of me … They thought I was Superman. Now they can go, ‘He’s human, like us. He has problems.’ ”
And there it is, the one gift from two lessons: Humanity. Muhammad Ali became an ambassador for the humanity we all share, for the failings and weaknesses that fell us all, for the courage and the indomitable spirit that lift us all. With his life inside the ring, he gave us dazzling skills and momentary heroics. With his life outside the ring, he served us all by showing us the enduring hero that can live in all of us.
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth,” Muhammad Ali once said. He paid his rent and then some. Like my father and B.B. King, Ali helped me understand we are stronger for our losses — we can be stronger because of our losses.
The last word belongs to ESPN Staff Writer, Nigel Collins: “Ali was The Greatest because he said he was, lived his life accordingly and convinced the world it was true. In the end, it’s the people who decide such things — and the people have spoken.”
Image from Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, via Wikimedia Commons.