Resources: Blog Post
What a legacy!
I was in England when I first felt the magnetism of this man. He had built a tremendous physique, possessed attractive features, was lightning fast with his hands, and so much lighter on his feet than any heavyweight boxer I had ever seen. Britain’s champion was a greengrocer from south London, close to where I lived. As a boxer, he had one great punch – a left hook – that had floored many, but his weakness was that he cut too easily.
It was in 1963 in London that Cassius Marcellus Clay would proclaim, “Henry, this is no jive. The fight will end in five.” Henry Cooper was in his prime, a seasoned professional, and Clay was still only 21 years old. Most Brits wanted to see Cooper destroy the cocky American, and although Cooper did knock Clay down, true to his prediction, the fight was stopped in the fifth round because of a gash over Cooper’s eye.
There has been so much written and said about Mohammed Ali since his passing that there is little left to chronicle. However, ever since I watched him dance in the ring in his prime, and as much as the sport of boxing has never appealed to me very much, he drew me to it, much like Tiger Woods did in his golf prime three decades later. He really did “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” but regardless of his boxing prowess, there was so much more to Clay. Yet, academically, he was a pitiful student. He was not drafted to Vietnam at the beginning because he failed the literacy tests. It begs the question as to how such an “uneducated” person could so influence the world?
I was always intrigued by Ali’s ability to capture people’s attention. I assumed his early nickname as the “Louisville Lip” was simply part of his DNA, but this was only partly true. In 1961, he met Gorgeous George, a forty-six year old wrestler whose outrageous verbal antics made Clay look tongue-tied. What amazed Clay was that every seat in the arena was filled when George wrestled, and nearly every fan was screaming for George’s gilded scalp. But the point was, the arena was filled.
“A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth,” George told Clay. “So keep on bragging, keep on sassing, and always be outrageous.” Fifty five years later, is it possible that Trump has also been heeding Gorgeous George’s showmanship? Just as Ali masterfully controlled conversations, Trump has dominated campaign debates and destroyed the other candidates. Whether we liked Ali or not, in those early years, he was centre stage and his sublime boxing style was magnetic.
It was from this platform that Ali saw a bigoted country, welcoming an Olympic gold medal winner, yet denying basic rights to black citizens. In his prime, Ali refused to serve in Vietnam, was convicted of draft evasion and stripped of his heavyweight crown. But he stood by what he believed in, no matter the huge personal cost and vicious hatred against him. That to me was, and is, the mark of the man. He stood by fervent beliefs and that’s what the world ultimately came to see.
A man who transcended culture and language. He commanded an audience with presidents, global leaders, the Dalai Lama, the pope and others, and who else could meet with Saddam Hussein and help secure the release of 14 American hostages from Iraq. His peacekeeping trips, fundraising efforts for Parkinson’s research, and his support for UNICEF and the Special Olympics were driven by what he held as being purposeful. I can’t help but recognize and admire the power of one’s beliefs.
As HR professionals, how much does our belief in people drive our passion and commitment. I assume that if we ranted and railed that “our people are the greatest,” it would quickly bring about a visit from the men in white coats.
To my mind, some of the best ever T.V. repartee between an athlete and a commentator was between Howard Cosell and Ali. If Cosell’s name is unfamiliar, he said of himself, “arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. There’s no question that I’m all of those things.” They verbally sparred with each other all the time and it’s been said that they enabled each other’s careers. Both men’s health declined; Ali from Parkinson’s disease, Cosell from multiple problems.
In 1992, when Ali celebrated his 50th birthday on a television special, the ailing Cosell offered his greetings in a prerecorded segment that showed his emotional side, without bombast or gibes. “Fifty years old,” he said, “I never thought that could happen, not to you. But it has, and you know something? You are exactly who you said you are. You never wavered. You are free to be who you want to be.” Cosell paused, choking up, and added, “I love you.”
When Ali learned of Cosell’s death, his speech by then had become greatly impaired, but tears rolled down his face. Ali wanted to be known as a great human being first, and a boxer second. He knew who and what he was and what he believed. That’s how I will remember him.
With statistics that tell us of employee dis-affection with corporate life, and those who cannot wait for the weekend to arrive, at whatever stage of life we are in, Ali counselled us: “Don’t count the days, make the days count.” Mohammed Ali did.
Ian Hendry is the president of the Strategic Capability Network. In his Morning Musings, he provides insight on issues facing today’s business leaders and looks at subject matter related to upcoming SCNetwork events. He is also VP HR & Administration at Interac Association.
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