On Self-Belief: Muhammad Ali

"I'mma show you how great I am!"

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Muhammad Ali, originally known as Cassius Clay, at the age of 22 shocked the world in 1964, by defeating Sonny Liston, becoming the undisputed heavyweight boxing championship of the world. The reigning champion Sonny Liston was 35-1 with 24 knockouts. Liston had knocked out former champion Floyd Patterson in two fights, both in the first round. Ali had two lackluster performances leading up to the title fight. Ali was a 7-1 underdog. No doubt, no fear, no pity, only armed with self-belief, Ali declared:

I’m gonna float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

After the fight, a triumphant Ali pointed to the ringside press and shouted:

Eat your words!
I shook up the world!
I must be the greatest!

In 1967, Ali refused conscription into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. Ali lost everything. Branded a traitor by his country. His fans turned against him.

No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor people. ... If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.

Mathematician, philosopher, and Nobel laureate, Bertrand Russell sent these words of encouragement to Ali:

In the coming months there is no doubt that the men who rule Washington will try to damage you in every way open to them, but I am sure you know that you spoke for your people and for the oppressed everywhere in the courageous defiance of American power. ... You have my wholehearted support.

In King of the World, David Remnick quotes the American poet Sonia Sanchez:

It’s hard now to relay the emotion of that time ... when hardly any well-known people were resisting the draft ... and here was this beautiful, funny, poetical young man standing up and saying, ‘No!’

In 1971, Ali's conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.

The champ is here.
— Muhammad Ali

In 1974, an older and slower Muhammad Ali challenged George Foreman for the undisputed heavyweight title. Foreman was 7 years Ali's junior, with a perfect 40-0 record, with 37 knockouts. This included knockouts over men who had previously bested Ali, Ken Norton, and Joe Frazier. It took Foreman 2 rounds to take both men.

Again, no one gave Ali a chance. No one other than Ali. When faced with adversity, there are those who think: Why I can't. For men like Ali, they ask themselves: Why can't I?

In typical Ali fashion, Ali told the world:

It is befitting that I leave the game just like I came in,
Beating a big bad monster who knocks out everybody and no one can whoop him.

That’s when that little Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky came up and stopped Sonny Liston.
The man who annihilated Floyd Patterson twice!
He was gonna kill me!

But he hit harder than George,
His reach is longer than George,
He’s a better boxer than George,
And I’m better now than I was when you saw that 22-year-old undeveloped kid running from Sonny Liston.

I’m experienced now,
Jaws been broke,
Been lost,
Knocked down a couple of times.

I’m bad!

Been choppin’ trees.
I done something new for this fight,
I’ve wrassled with an alligator.
That’s right!
I have wrassled with an alligator,
I done tussled with a whale,
I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail!
That’s bad!

Only last week I murdered a rock,
Injured a stone,
Hospitalized a brick.
I’m so mean I make medicine sick!


Last night I cut the light off in my bedroom, hit the switch, was in the bed before the room was dark!

And you, George Foreman —
— All of you chumps are gonna bow when I whoop him.
All of ya!
I know you got him, I know you got him picked.
But the man’s in trouble.
I’mma show you how great I am!

Without his speed, Ali outsmarted George Foreman. Knowing he couldn't escape the younger fighter, Ali yielded to Foreman's punishment against the ropes with the now famous, "rope-a-dope." American tai chi master Cheng Man-ch'ing said, "Invest in loss." What he meant was, sometimes you will be losing. Do not fear this loss, it is only temporary. For a while, suffer. You must persevere, and when the moment is right, prevail!

In the eighth round, in the center of the ring, Muhammad Ali knocked, an exhausted George Foreman, out. Against the odds, Ali had regained his title.

George Foreman said of his fight with Ali:

I’ll admit it. Muhammad outthought me and outfought me.

To test himself further, in 1976, Ali fought in the first-ever internationally televised mixed styles fight (the precursor to mixed martial arts) with Japan's Antonio Inoki. In many ways, Ali was not only the best, he was also the first — always ahead of his time.

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome. Against all medical expectations, Ali still went strong. He outlived many of his opponents. Overcoming the odds had become a tradition for the man with self-belief.

What’s my name?!
— Muhammad Ali

In King of the World, Remnick writes:

[Ali is] an American myth who has come to mean many things to many people: a symbol of faith, a symbol of conviction and defiance, a symbol of beauty and skill and courage, a symbol of racial pride, of wit and love.

With the passage of time, Ali's actions, along with his larger-than-life character, has made him an American hero, an inspiration to all, and the greatest of all time.

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.
— Muhammad Ali

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born January 17, 1942 and died on June 3, 2016. Yet when Cassius Clay gave up his name, he set himself free. Muhammad Ali will live on forever.

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.
— Muhammad Ali

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