There’s a little bit of Muhammad Ali in me, and I’d love to see his influence in everybody.
Between his energy, creativity, work ethic, and fight for humanity, we can look at his life in ways that will inspire us to grow.
First off, I want to note that Ali was a work in progress. In addition to developing a reputation for playing around with lots of women, there was also a time when he did not support racial integration. But in time, his views changed, which led to one of his greatest quotes:
“Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
I’ve used one of his other well-known lines, “I won’t look down on those that look up to me,” for a song I co-wrote with electric violinist, Joe Deninzon. “The Greatest Lives” was a 25-year-old idea that asked the question: What would the man, Muhammad Ali, want us to know? I also just discovered a new one: “One Love,” by global singer and songwriter, Amanda Abizaid.
The list of songs I’ve accumulated about Ali encompasses a range of musicians: James Brown’s “I Refuse to Lose,” Billy Joel’s “Zanzibar,” and jazz bassist Christian McBride’s “The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons,” an album that celebrates Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks. There’s Miles Davis’ “Ali” from his “Take 3” album. The late Waylon Jennings wrote “Muhammad Ali,” and his friend Kris Kristofferson and Waylon’s widow Jessie Colter covered it at a Parkinson’s Benefit with Ali present.
I also love Alastair Moock’s song for children, “Be A Pain,” which gives a shout-out to Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk. The late folk singer Greg Trooper’s “(Muhammad Ali) The Meaning of Christmas,” and George Clinton’s Parliament’s “Chocolate City” are also great. And remember John Lennon wrote “I’m the Greatest,” which his Beatle bandmate Ringo Starr covered? Someday, I also hope someone makes a prequel to Regina King’s “One Night in Miami.”
After watching two recent documentaries about Ali, including the PBS series by Ken Burns and Marcus A. Clarke and Ilyasah Shabazz’ “Blood Brothers,” which was about a broken relationship with Malcolm X, it’s evident that “The Champ” is still a needed voice in our times.
Here are two Ali quotes will make anyone stick to their guns when folks try to mess with their minds:
“I’ve never let anyone talk me into not believing in myself.”
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
These quotes speak to us finding our expression in life. We’re not here to live other people’s lives. Speaking up for ourselves is good for us; it tells the naysayers and the bullies to wake up—they’re not fooling anybody.
In 1977, Ali said, “Your real self is inside of you, because your body gets old,” which is only more profound when you remember that he lived a full life and was then diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, at age 42. He spent the next 42 years battling it, looking for a cure, and finding ways to meet with the public for as long as possible. He worked on race relations, traveled to Iraq to negotiate the release of American hostages, and to Cuba to deliver medical aid. He was the focal point for goodwill missions to other dangerous places, including Afghanistan and North Korea.
Another quote that I love: “I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world.” It’s not just about impressing people in power. The message here is to keep our eyes out for the underdogs—folks you don’t think can do anything for you. Respect and listen to minorities, the differently abled (including those with mental and neurological illness), immigrants, women, and folks in the LGBTQ community when they tell you they feel discriminated against.
The quote on Ali’s tombstone is this: “The service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” I think that the more we help others, the more we help the entire world, including ourselves. It just seems to work out that way.
Ali said hundreds of amazing, inspiring things. Which one is your favorite?
Bonus: Muhammad Ali’s beautiful recipe for life.