ESTIMATED READING TIME : 7 MINUTES 28 SECONDS
On Friday, June 3, 2016, legendary boxer Muhammad Ali died in Scottsdale, Arizona at the age of 74. Since Ali's death, many writers, sportswriters and pundits have opined at length about the man and his amazing career, and rightfully so. I can add little to the cacophony of voices recounting Ali's exploits, greatness and cultural relevance. The one thing I can do though is share a little story of how Muhammad Ali, a man I've long admired but never met, recently taught me how to get up off the canvas and fight like a champion.
This past year has been a very challenging one for me due to a very difficult personal struggle I have been in, the details of which I cannot and will not get in to at the moment. To be clear this struggle is no greater or more difficult than anyone else's, and lots of people have gone through very similar struggles. The bottom line is that we all have our particular crosses to bear. I have seen lots of people very close to me go through much, much worse struggles than I ever have, believe me, but with that said, I have been going through my own, unique struggle this past year which has taken me on a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs and highs and lows. This past autumn was a particularly low point in my struggle. I was in the deep in the midst of this tough fight and it was draining my physical, mental and emotional energy. The resulting fatigue wreaked havoc on my spirit, for as a wise man once said, fatigue makes cowards of us all, and so it was with me. With my energy and spirits sinking I drifted about in a sea of depression which teetered perilously close to pulling me down into the dark abyss of despair. I have been in other struggles of similar magnitude before, my struggle to overcome addiction nearly a quarter century ago being a prime example, so I'm not afraid of or unfamiliar with a good fight, but this particular fight is unlike anything I have ever experienced. This fight is a complex and tough son of a bitch and making it all the more stressful is the fact that the stakes are the highest imaginable…and after months of fighting, this past fall I was on the ropes, if not flat on the canvas, my head spinning, my nose bloodied, my ribs aching, my legs quaking, my lungs burning.
FROM GETHSEMANE TO GOLGOTHA
Being the good Irish-Catholic boy that I am, in my dark night of the soul, I, like so many before me, turned to the faith of my youth. I picked up the bible and started reading and frantically searching. I was desperately looking for answers, for solace, for guidance, for…something. I focused on the New Testament and found myself drawn over and over to the passion of the Christ. It was as if the needle were stuck on that section of Jesus' life from his fear and despair in Gethsemane, of which I could totally relate, to his torture and ultimate death at Golgotha. Gethsemane to Golgotha is a journey of dread and misery that leads to a gruesome defeat. Christ's victory, of course, comes with the resurrection, but for some reason I just stopped reading at the crucifixion. Maybe it is my dark, brooding Irish nature, or maybe it is my doubt riddled faith, but I could not get past Jesus and his human struggles and get to the redemption of Christ as God.
WHAT CAN BROWN, AND BOBA FETT DO FOR YOU?
So there I sat in my office with my bible on my lap, fear in my heart and turmoil in my soul. I was nearing the end of my rope, ready to throw in the towel or to let the ref count me out. And then there was a knock at the door. Frank, our good natured UPS guy, had a package for me, which was odd as I wasn't expecting anything. I brought the package back into my office, sat back in the same chair and opened it up. Inside was a book, sent from a friend who I will call "Boba Fett". I had not seen Boba in quite a while so this package certainly came out of the blue. Boba had left a note inside the book which basically said, innocuously enough, "hey, thought you might like this". Boba had no idea as to how low I had sunk or how beaten up and desperate I had become in my struggle. Boba was completely unaware that he was throwing me a seriously needed lifeline with this gift. The book Boba sent me was "King of the World" by David Remnick. It is the story of the young Muhammad Ali's (then Cassius Clay) rise from obscurity and his fight (and eventual rematch) with Heavyweight champion of the world Sonny Liston. It was in this book, and in the mythic figure of Muhammad Ali that I was able to find my salvation, my inspiration, my strategy and my tactics to get off the canvas and get back into my fight and maybe even win this thing.
THE SWEET SCIENCE
I have been recreationally boxing and training in the martial arts for more than twenty years. I used to work as a boxing instructor before I got into acting coaching/teaching. As an example of how much I love the sport of boxing, for my bachelor party I didn't have a party at a strip club, but rather my friends all gathered together, rented out a boxing gym, and each fought me for a round. Nothing marks a man's journey from bachelorhood to marriage like beating the hell out of his friends. This is the type of barbaric ritual that modern man desperately needs and sorely lacks and that my friends were more than happy to give me since they got to try and punch me in the face. Needless to say that after separately fighting ten different guys I was pretty exhausted, but I was more than prepared for my wedding.
My love of boxing started out when I was just a little kid. I don't come from a boxing family, and my father was never fan, but for some reason I was drawn to watch the fights on Saturdays and Sundays when they aired on the networks. This was back when boxing was actually somewhat relevant, the fighters were very good and you could see it on free tv. Cable tv was just starting out, and my family never had it anyway, so it was lucky for me that the networks would cover the sport. Ali was well past his prime at this point, but you could still see his past great fights with Frazier, Foreman and Norton when they occasionally re-ran them when they were desperate for content. The lighter weights were where the great fighters of the day reigned…boxers like Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, Alexis Arguello, Aaron Pryor, Ray Mancini are just a few of the guys I watched and admired over and over on the Saturdays and Sundays of my youth. In fact, there are a pair of boxing gloves given to me as a gift from my Irish friend "Liam The Lion", personally autographed by my second favorite fighter of all time, Sugar Ray Leonard, hanging on the wall right next to my office chair. Leonard is a distant second on my list of favorite fighters to Muhammed Ali, who is, in my eyes, unquestionably the greatest fighter of all time. Every fighter, and maybe every athlete, to have come along in the wake of Muhammad Ali's career has had to do so in the very long shadow of a giant for the ages.
What made Ali so great? Well, there are other writers who would be much more eloquent than I in describing Ali's boxing mastery, so I recommend you seek them out. But to me, Ali was an absolutely beautiful athlete, a big, strong man who moved with a magnificent grace and style, and he was also the first person to tell you that. Ali's obvious athletic prowess made him an elite and formidable boxer, but it was his mind and intangible qualities that made him a great fighter. The thing that always impressed me the most about Ali was not his rhetoric or his flashy fighting style, but rather his heart, his intelligence and most of all his unrelenting toughness. It was these intangible qualities that inspired me in my moment of need in my metaphorical Garden of Gethsemane.
THESE ARE THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN'S SOULS
Ali never backed down from a fight and he never dodged one either. He could also not just take a punch but take a beating, and still persevere and be victorious. Ali was relentless but he was also wise. He understood the teaching of Sun Tzu, that you need to win the fight before it ever starts. Ali's strategic and tactical mastery are what elevated him from remarkable athlete to undeniable champion. Ali's decision to "play crazy" in his pre-fight with Sonny Liston, then the unquestioned baddest man on the planet, unnerved Liston so much that he was off-balance before the match ever started. Ali's use of the rope-a-dope in Zaire in his fight with George Foreman, who before he became the beloved grill pitchman of today was the most fearsome and baddest man on the planet of his time, tricked Foreman into punching himself out of the fight and the championship.
"INSIDE OF A RING OR OUT, AIN'T NOTHING WRONG WITH GOING DOWN. IT'S STAYING DOWN THAT'S WRONG." - MUHAMMAD ALI
Ali's heart and toughness were highlighted the most when he faced his greatest tests. Ali's greatness was in his resilience. It was when he faced adversity that he dug deep and proved his worth. His fights with Joe Frazier formed an historic epic trilogy where both fighters gave all they had and had their hearts and souls put to the ultimate test. Both men unquestionably proved their mettle, but it was Ali who got up off his stool in the 15th and final round of the trilogy, and it was Frazier who stayed seated. It was also Ali who got back on his feet after being on the receiving end of a near perfect punch, a vicious and technically impeccable left hook from Frazier in the 15th round of the first fight between the two men. Ali lost that fight but proved his toughness nonetheless to all those lucky enough to bear witness.
Two years after Ali's loss to Frazier in the "Fight of the Century" in 1971, he lost to Ken Norton by decision after getting his jaw broken by the relentlessly hard hitting Norton. Ali proved his toughness by bouncing back from this loss to beat Norton in a rugged rematch just six months later. Ali then proved his resiliency and toughness again by fighting Frazier two more times, in 1974 and '75, winning both fights, including the legendary Thrilla in Manila. A year later, in 1976, Ali beat Norton in the rubber match of their own heavyweight trilogy. Notice a pattern here? Even when Ali lost a fight, he never allowed himself to be defeated, he got up off his ass and went out and beat the men whom he had lost to, not once, but twice, just to remove any doubt as to who was the greater fighter.
Ali's toughness and resilience were vividly on display just nine months after his first victory over Joe Frazier in January of '74, when he took devastating blow after devastating blow from the wrecking machine named George Foreman in October of that same year. Ali did what no other man was able, he took that hellacious beating from Foreman and never wilted. Ali took the best of what Foreman had to offer and then flipped the switch and dispatched Big George when he had run out of gas. Ali withstood Foreman's onslaught and was able to bounce back and have enough left to knock him out. What Ali's victory in the Rumble in the Jungle proved, was that he wasn't just a better boxer and better fighter than Foreman, he was physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually tougher than Foreman. Ali's skill and strategy served him well in that fight, but it was his heart and toughness that won it for him.
"HE WHO IS NOT COURAGEOUS ENOUGH TO TAKE RISKS WILL ACCOMPLISH NOTHING IN LIFE. " - MUHAMMAD ALI
While Ali was glorified in victory, it was in defeat that he was sanctified. His losses to Frazier and Norton forced him to sharpen his resolve that was first born in his three year battle of conscience with the U.S. government. Ali's patience and perseverance are the lessons that are of most value to me in my struggle right now. What are some of the answers you get when you ask What Would Ali Do? Well, Ali teaches us to keep fighting, no matter what. If you get knocked down, get up. If you get hit hard, roll with the punches. If you are losing right now, be patient, and be ready to strike when an opening occurs. If things seem dire at the moment, persevere and remember your principles and the big picture.
Another thing that Ali teaches us is that we mustn't judge our fear, but use it. Ali was not fearless, in fact he was scared shitless in the lead up to his fight with Liston, who was a very scary guy, but Ali used that fear to energize his pre-fight shenanigans that so befuddled Liston. And Ali was also not a man without doubts, as he seriously doubted his prospects in the Foreman fight. Ali teaches us that being afraid or being filled with self-doubt are not signs of weakness but of opportunity, for without fear and doubt, courage cannot be born or prosper.
"I CAN SEE CLEARLY NOW THE RAIN IS GONE." - JOHNNY NASH
I knew all of these lessons from Ali before Boba Fett sent me the generous gift of that book, so why didn't I remember them on my own when I was in such acute need of assistance? The reality is that when we are in desperate situations and dire circumstances, a powerful myopia sets in, leaving us unable to see the big picture or to think clearly. That is why it is always a bad idea to make a decision out of fear, or anger, or any emotion, because you cannot see clearly, and the solution to your problem may be hiding in plain sight but you are not capable of seeing it. Depression does this to people as well, it shuts them down to the possibilities and makes them myopic to a paralyzing degree. This is what was happening to me until my dear friend Boba Fett, in an act of random kindness, awoke me to the possibilities and the power that already resided deep within me, but of which I had forgotten. That is why friends and loved ones are so vital to us all, for they, and we, when the opportunity presents itself, can be the catalyst to help someone we care about. They, and we, can be the cornermen who implore us to get up off the canvas and get back into the fight and to show us the answer hiding right in front of us by snapping us out of our myopia. Those random acts, the sending of a book, or a thoughtful email, or just letting someone know that we are thinking of them, can be enough to break the spell of that paralyzing myopia and catapult someone into the light of day. Cornermen cannot fight the fight for you, but they can be great places to catch your breath and find inspiration.
WHAT WOULD ALI DO?
And so, if you find yourself in a fight and are struggling, or have been knocked down or beaten up by life, ask yourself the question…What Would Ali Do? The answer will be to keep fighting hard and smart, to be resilient and to persevere no matter what. Ali showed us in the Liston fight that you can use your own fear as a valuable weapon to go from being a nobody to the being the heavyweight champion of the world. In the Frazier fights, Ali showed us how you can use your toughness and resilience to go from being down and out to becoming a legend for all-time. And in Ali's fight with the U.S. government, Ali teaches us how to be patient and to persevere, even if it takes thirty years, in order to go from being a loathed and reviled political, cultural and religious radical, to being a beloved symbol of a man who unflinchingly lived by his principles and convictions, even when those principles and convictions are terribly unpopular. The bottom line is this…What Would Ali Do? He would win…even when he lost. Ali teaches us that our bodies can be beaten and our hearts broken, but we can never let them break our spirit, for that is where the ultimate victory resides.
Muhammad Ali has now shuffled off this mortal coil, but the lessons he taught us in the way he lived his glorious life will linger with us through the ages, and we should be eternally grateful for them and for him. Ali was a luminous light in an exceedingly dark world. A man courageous enough to speak truth to power, who not only was ahead of his time, but who shaped and changed his time. Yes, Muhammad Ali is gone, but he will never be forgotten by me because in my darkest moments, he taught me how to get up off the canvas and to get back into this fight. Hell…with Ali in my corner, I might even win this thing. So, a tip of my cap to the Greatest of All-Time. Thank you Champ, Rest in Peace, you've earned it.