“You look like Joe Frazier.” Much to my surprise I looked up and saw my hero walking through the door pointing at me and then throwing jabs in my direction. That same jab I had seen many times in his fights. That same jab I threw hundreds of times, even though I never boxed. Why he was at that small record distribution plant in Los Angeles where most West Coast rappers from Ice T to NWA got their start I will never know.
All I know is I got to shake Muhammad Ali’s hand and stand next to the man that helped define a generation of us. My hero.
My dad told stories of sitting around the radio and listening to Joe Louis fights and the pride that the whole neighborhood felt when he won. Joe Louis was the hero to my parents’ generation. It was also my dad who took me to the closed-circuit telecasts of Muhammad Ali’s fights. Whether he won or lost didn’t matter because I was watching the greatest of all time. Just as important, he made my generation feel like we were the greatest and the prettiest and that we could — and should — stand up for our convictions.
When I was younger I spent a lot of time practicing martial arts. From early in the morning until late at night, I moved my feet and danced in the Muhammad Ali style of fighting. They would call it poetry in motion the way I moved. But I wasn’t the only one who wanted to move like Ali. I would say to myself “I am the greatest … float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” I wanted to be like him.
Muhammad Ali made it seem like everything was alright even when it wasn’t.
Ali empowered a generation of us by teaching us that it was okay to dare to be different. It was okay not to go with the status quo. It was okay to challenge society. Others worked for social and economic change and didn’t make it whether they were killed or imprisoned. But he did.
He made it for two reasons. First, his foundation came from another place … sports. Everyone could relate to Muhammad Ali and admired him. Second, he empowered others by taking a personal stand.
Because of him, we believed that we could do whatever we wanted. It was okay to boast about our strengths. It was okay to be proud of ourselves, but not acceptable not to be.
The most important lesson that Muhammad Ali taught young people is that no matter who is attacking you, you can prevail if you are on the side of right. It’s not how you got knocked down but how you get up. Ali lost fights but until his last fight he always got up to fight again.