What I Learned From The Greatest: Personal Reflections On Muhammad Ali
It was the mid-1970s and Muhammad Ali was my new hero. To me, a grade-schooler, he was larger than life and yet so down-to-earth. My parents were in his inner circle, which gave me magical memories and personal insights on greatness. At his Deer Lake training camp in Pennsylvania and the Concord Resort Hotel in the Catskills, I got to experience the Heavyweight Champion away from the crowds. I would sit on his lap while he taught me card tricks. I was fascinated by his intensity and focus, and always listened eagerly and watched his every move. Along with my parents, Ali planted the seeds for what later became the foundation for the Power Living empowerment work I do around the world. He gave me a first-hand view of the power of belief, the practice of self-management and the importance of service.
The Prizefighter, Poet and Peacemaker
Known for his fighting, Ali was really a poet and peacemaker at heart. His fist would pack a punch but his kindness would disarm you. His smile was infectious and his eyes drew you in often dancing around as he masterfully played with words such as using Bundini Brown's, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Later Ali added, "His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see." His language, as his footwork, had a cadence.
Ali stood up for what he believed in and spoke his truth. In 1964, he audaciously claimed his honored name when he joined the Nation of Islam and then in 1967 risked his career by refusing the draft saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." He added, "No, I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of slave masters over the darker people of the earth." A champion of the underdog, he even traveled to Iraq and secured the release of fifteen United States hostages during the first Gulf War.
It makes sense that Ali and Dad were friends. My father, Dr. James Scott Kennedy, won forty-five professional fights as a welterweight that helped to pay for his education at New York University. My father's older brother, Leon Kennedy, was also a winning fighter but after he died of a heart attack training my dad hung up his gloves in a professional capacity. He became a tenured professor, poet, playwright and preacher. My cousin Leon Isaac Kennedy, created, produced and starred in the boxing-themed Penitentiary movies in the 1970s. My dad would always greet him with a few playful jabs and give him pointers as he was growing up. Ali trained with Leon and taught him how to box for the films.
Similar to Ali, Dad was an activist wherever he was -- from civil rights in the U.S., Africa for Africans in Ghana, and marching with the Aborigines for land rights when we lived in Australia. Both Ali and my dad embodied this Renaissance man mix of fire and compassion, physicality and mental prowess -- the ultimate of gentle strength and poetry in motion.
I Am The Greatest
Ali and Dad would intently walk and talk on the training grounds with the expansive mountain vista behind them. There was a sense in the environment that anything was possible. After all, Ali didn't give power to the word impossible saying, "He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life." His proclamation, "I Am The Greatest," came to pass because he willed it to through repetition and conviction. Ali revealed, "I said that even before I knew I was." In the middle of sparring, he would pause and check himself in the mirror saying, "I'm so pretty!" It was part show and part affirmation. He knew that the real battleground was in his mind. Of course, he also delighted in throwing off his opponent. At the end of each session, he would display his verbal skills some more and encourage us to join in chanting to show off for the press.
Though their chosen religions were different, my mom shared Ali's prophetic spirit. There was a kinship in knowing the importance of tuning the mind to that which was positive and stating with belief that which you wanted. I grew up listening to Raymond Charles Barker at Alice Tully Hall and later studying Ernest Holmes' book, The Science of Mind. From it, I learned the practice we now popularly refer to as The Law of Attraction. Ali was a master at it, exemplifying the principle: what the mind can conceive and the heart can believe, you can achieve. In addition to strenuous physical drills, he would "get together spiritually" and "call on the Supreme Being to intervene." He said, "It's a lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believe in myself."
In 1976, we spent time with Ali as he was preparing for the Ken Norton fight in the Catskills. Civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory was there and offered health advice. Joe Louis with his wife sat next to us to watch the Champ spar. Mom babysat Ali's daughter Hana. Having recently given birth, Veronica needed to buy new clothes that fit. She spent the day in Manhattan shopping and my mother was asked to take care of the baby with Ali. Dad had taken us out on an excursion while Mom and Ali sat in his bedroom, talked and shared poetry. He explained how he carefully planned his public banter. Though he could ad lib all the time, he had a point of view and created around that theme like the improvisation of a jazz musician. My parents had the first multi-cultural theatre company in New York City in the 1950s, and Ali expressed interest in them helping him find a theatre in Manhattan to purchase. As an early spoken word artist, he had a respect for the creative arts.
Just Enough To Win
With all of this as the backdrop, I was an avid young athlete but had a love-hate relationship with boxing. I didn't like the violence and health risks, but I respected the sportsmanship. When there was an Ali fight, it was appointment viewing or we were there in person particularly if it was in New York. I remember Yankee Stadium for the Ali-Norton III title fight on September 28, 1976. I was eight years old and Mom encouraged me to dress in a very dapper suit as usual. She had been concerned about the cool weather since the match was being held outside. There were also safety issues because the police were on strike and under those circumstances that area of the South Bronx seemed to invite crime.
The fight itself was long -- 15 rounds. Ali won but it was very close. Afterwards we had passes to go back and see Ali for the press conference. There was always a lot of activity behind the scenes. We were pushing through the hall along with Mayor Abraham Beame trying to get to the room. We saw all of the regulars--Ali's trainer Angelo Dundee, his manager Herbert Muhammad and his younger brother Rahaman Ali. I was intrigued by singer Barry White's wife Glodean and her long, curly nails, and I was happy to see Ali's daughter Maryum since we were the same age. When Mom congratulated Ali on winning the fight, he personally told her he was disappointed that he did not do better. He told the press, "I had just enough to win."
Madison Square Garden was next for the Earnie Shavers fight. As a youngster, I thought Ali's nicknames for his adversaries were humorous -- in this case "The Acorn" for Shavers' bald head. In between the big events was the grueling training camp routine. As Ali famously stated, "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'" His discipline and commitment to being great left an impression on me fueling my own resolve.
When my family lived in Ghana in the 1960s, my parents met Betty Shabazz and had remained friends. One of her deepest regrets was the split between her husband Malcolm X, who had been assassinated, and Ali. The Champ shared that heartache. In 1978, when Betty found out we were going up to the training camp, she asked Mom to talk with my dad about helping her mend the relationship with Ali. Dad planned a trip to Deer Lake and took Betty for this historic meeting. Our entire family was there and watched as she and Ali sat together--talking, smiling, laughing and hugging. I could feel that there was great relief and joy, like a heavy burden had been lifted. I think some of Ali's greatest wins were outside of the ring and sometimes behind closed doors.
Free To Be
Right around the time of his last fight in 1981, Ali played himself in the movie Body & Soul starring my cousin Leon and his then-wife Jayne Kennedy. Leon fought hard to buy the rights to the 1947 film, which originally had an all-white cast. He wanted to produce a story featuring African-Americans. It was a treat to see Ali in a different light, taking no more hard blows at least from an external opponent. Dad was on the set for most of the filming.
In 1982, Ali traveled to the United Arab Emirates, including Dubai and Abu Dhabi. He had exhibition bouts against American heavyweight Jimmy Ellis and German boxer Reiner Hartmann. Leon was there and instrumental in the activities, and Ali invited my mother, at that point a Columbia University-trained journalist. It was unusual for her -- a woman -- to be part of the entourage particularly at that time. In looking at photos from my recent trip to Dubai with 97-year-old yoga master Tao Porchon-Lynch, Mom recalled, "When I was there with Muhammad, Dubai was certainly not as it is today." On her tour, Mom met and remained friends with Lonnie who had known Ali since childhood.
Unquestionably, Ali's greatest match was with Parkinson's Disease beginning when he was formally diagnosed in 1984. It became "a pebble in his shoe" slowing him down. I would witness a similar deterioration when my dad was cruelly trapped in his body due to Alzheimer's. He had been known as "Mr. Speech" but for the last months of his life he couldn't speak due to a series of mini strokes. Like Ali though, his spirit was present. True athletes don't go down without a good fight. Ali had a loving partner in this particular battle. His beautiful wife Lonnie had become his consummate caregiver, advocate and literally his voice.
In the early 1990s, Mom and I saw Ali at the annual IAA Jesse Owens Gala at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Although he wasn't talking much in public, his eyes lit up and he whispered in her ear. He may not have had the strength from years past, but he still had the warmth. My sister saw Ali and Lonnie at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in 2006. She commented to Lonnie that the Champ looked good but Lonnie confided that his health had declined. Nevertheless, amongst Heads of State and royalty at the Forum, Ali's presence commanded respect.
We Can All Be Champions
My family and I are grateful for these experiences with such an exceptional being. I learned, and now teach, that we each can be the champion in our own life. Follow your dreams and treat yourself like a top athlete training for the gold. If you fall, keep getting up. Sometimes you'll win by a knockout and other times by contested decision. Like Ali, have the courage to claim your freedom and be who you are. Face your flaws and amplify your gifts. Guard your thoughts and mind your body. Let only supportive people into your camp.
No matter what "game" you're in -- corporate or otherwise -- play smart and be kind. Even if you feel like the underdog, as the young Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was to Sonny Liston, reach down to the bottom of your soul for that "extra ounce of power it takes to win" and declare, "I Am The Greatest!" Most of all, seek to serve. Ali said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."
Now, this free spirit, "Beloved of God," goes home. He has served his time on this plane with no more rent to pay. It's time to float like a butterfly. Your light will continue to shine bright like the Olympic flame. Rest In Peace.
We have many Ali pictures. Here are a few:
Copyright Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy. Photo credits: Sykes Kennedy Archives
Original article published in The Huffington Post.
Teresa Kay-Aba Kennedy is a Harvard Business School-trained Strategist, Mind-Body Expert, Award-Winning Author, Keynote Speaker and Activist. She is Founder & CEO of Power Living and creator of Elder Dignity. Selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, her mission is to unleash human potential and create a more just and sustainable world.
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