By Jeff Alevy
CEO, YMCA of the Twin Tiers
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” These words are familiar to you if you’ve ever heard of – or followed – one of the greatest boxers of all time. Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, he was given the Islamic name Muhammad Ali while spiritually searching – and ultimately joining – the Nation of Islam in 1964.
Ali got his start in boxing with an ironic twist of fate. At the age of 12, he went to a store with a friend as they left their bicycles outside. When they came out, the bikes were gone. As a result of that experience, Ali met a police officer, Joe Martin – who also trained young boxers at a local gym. Ali started working out there to learn how to spar, and from there his boxing career began.
It was reported that Ali was bold at a young age; unafraid to fight anybody. Ali won national Golden Glove Tournaments and the Gold Medal at the 1960 Olympics before turning pro in 1963. By 1964, Ali had become the world’s Heavyweight Champion by knocking out Sonny Liston. He had to take a 3-year hiatus from the sport due to a suspension from boxing when he refused to be drafted into the Vietnam war as a ‘conscientious objector’. Upon returning to the sport, he fought in several championship bouts. Ali eventually retired from boxing in 1981.
It was during the peak of his career that I personally met the self-proclaimed “greatest” fighter of all time. As a teenager, I was training to be an amateur boxer at the 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach. The gym was opened by Chris Dundee; Angelo Dundee’s brother – who happened to be Ali’s trainer. I went for a run one day near the gym. Ali happened to be in town training for a fight. We actually met on the street – he with his entourage – and me by myself. He took a few minutes to speak with and encourage me. It was an honor. To this day, I remember how gracious and soft-spoken he was. It was for this impression he made on me in the mid 70’s, that I felt it fitting to write about him this month.
Ali passed away in June. His wife, Lonnie, said, “Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world. In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up during segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
Former President Bill Clinton spoke about how Ali found self-empowerment: “He decided that not his race nor his place, the expectations of others – positive, negative or otherwise – would strip from him the power to write his own story. ”
Here’s to you, Mr. Cassius Clay.