Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Greatest

"The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life."
-Mohammed Ali

Surprising words, coming from a man who made his mark as a prize fighter.

There is a lot of wisdom in that single sentence. I think the most successful (and happy) people are those who accept the many stages of life without yearning for the past and for their own younger selves.

But how are we to accomplish this in a society that worships youth and subtly punishes those who grow older, women in particular? Women usually become invisible once they are past child-bearing years. Doors are not opened for them as frequently.

I addressed this issue in one of my earliest posts, which got a whopping four comments.

It is now about a year later. I am about a year older. I like to think that I am about a year wiser, but it's a slippery slope.

What is the ratio of years to wisdom, exactly?

Mohammed Ali has had to accept a lot of change in his life. He developed Parkinson's Disease, which has rendered him almost incapable of communicating. Perhaps he became introspective because of it, but what his comment says to me is that he has matured not only bodily, as we all do, but at the soul level as well. He has grasped one of the most difficult concepts of all, that we are meant to change our views, and that doing so does not make us disloyal to our former selves or mean that we were wrong then.

It simply shows that the view is different from higher on the hill we all traverse in life, and this should be celebrated, for we get to encompass many different ways of being who we are during our years on earth.

What is more, to stubbornly adhere to the same ideas we once held keeps us stuck in time. It negates all our experiences that have followed the single moment when we developed a belief. "It's my story and I'm sticking to it " is a poor way to go through life.

What a waste. If we could finally accept that aging is not a punishment or a disaster, certainly not a contagious disease, we could actually begin to enjoy the many freedoms that come from not having to be really young anymore.

Ali has always been wise, and he seems to have always known who he was.

When he gave up his "slave name," Cassius Clay, and became a Muslim, people disapproved.

He responded, "I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want."

His flagrant self-promotion, "I am the greatest!" was shocking in a world that esteemed modesty, even false modesty, and the fact that he was given to composing rhymes caused many not to take him seriously. The entire rap industry is probably in his debt.

His good nature was a large part of his charm, and it didn't hurt that he was extremely good looking as well. When reporters asked about his affiliation with Islam, he joked that he was going to have four wives: one to shine his shoes, one to feed him grapes, one to rub oil on his muscles and one named Peaches.

The public didn't know what to make of him. His fight for the heavyweight championship against Sonny Liston, a Mob-controlled thug, was sparsely attended, so few saw his stunning victory in person.

He refused to join the Army during the Vietnam War, saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me Nigger."

He applied to the Selective Service for conscientious objector status on religious grounds. The government prosecuted him for draft dodging, and the boxing commission took away his license.

Because he would not fight in an unjust war, he could not fight in the ring for 3 1/2 years at the peak of his career.

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that the government had acted improperly, but Ali declined to pursue any lawsuits to get his title back through the courts. He insisted that there was no need to punish the commission for doing what they thought was right, and determined to win back his title in the ring.

He famously did so by knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round of their fight in Zaire. Now George Foreman hawks barbecue grills.

Boxing, his great love, eventually did him in. Parkinson's has made it difficult for him to speak, and he moves slowly through the adoring crowds he still attracts. He spends hours signing autographs at home because his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, once denied him one, saying "Hello, kid, how ya doin'? I ain't got time."

Ali vowed that he would never turn anyone down. The volume of mail he gets is enormous, and with characteristic grace and wisdom, he continues to do the best he can with his life at this stage.

Although I don't like boxing or any sports in which people get hurt, I marvel at the fact that our wisest role models often come from unexpected places, and that what is in a person's heart is so much more important than the grammar he uses to present it.

Mohammed Ali chose the most surprising arena in which to express his charismatic personality, and in so doing, he brought a rare kind of beauty to what is normally the least beautiful of sports.

He is in every way a gentleman who practices what he preaches, for he seems not to have wasted a moment of his life. How many of us can make that claim?


Cristin said...

I can't add anything to that, but I will say, "Well said!"

EsLocura said...

I actually had the chance to meet Ali once and he really was the "greatest", charming, smart, witty and very sweet. great post yet again.

meno said...

I never knew all that. Thank you.

Sienna said...

What beautiful thoughts and story...

Our journey through life!

Wisdom, experience, know Hearts, the people that discriminate are the ones who truly miss out, whatever it is in their mind, heart or soul, whatever that barrier is; it denies them so much, it's like them sitting down to this glorious banquet of life and never getting past the bread roll.

I love to feast through the lot...ageing is so beautiful, I think it is the beauty of a person that begins to shine inner self-outward, we see this bit of pretty packaging in early years and then this inner beauty starts to unfold and it is amazing.

The only downside to ageing, wisdom, knowledge...the getting of it is that we can lose it ...just bingo! and it's gone...

Girl on the Run... said...

That is why I love boxing!

This is why I loved my Grandma, she may have been older but no one was wiser or could show more affection or grace!


riseoutofme said...

I nodded and smiled my way through this post.

I do SO love to nod and smile.

Thank you.

la cubana gringa said...

I've loved every year more than the last as I feel like I learn more and more...

One of my favorite quotes is by Gandhi: Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much! I appreciate it.


Oh, how very lucky you were. I would love to hear about that encounter with greatness.


I think much of his magnetism came from his knowledge of who he was, and his compassion, so amazing for someone in a profession that is considered brutal.


What a wonderful analogy. Life is indeed like a glorious banquet.

"I'll have what she's having."


You are lucky to have had a close relationship with your grandmother, and to have learned from her life and experiences.


Nodding and smiling does it for me, too. I'm glad I could help.

La Cubana,

Ah, Ghandi. One of the truly great souls, and that is a wonderful quote.

I find that I, too, am happier inside than when I was younger, and with any luck, this will continue forever.

Em said...

Too bad so many of our role models and "heroes" can't live up to how Ali handled his life and celebrity. A very nice post.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


He's a class act. Most of today's heroes and celebrities could learn much from him.

eastcoastdweller said...

I echo the other thoughts here: what could I possibly say that could be more profound than what You have already said?

I am lucky enough to have acquired an old paperbook biography of Ali -- very good book.

Anonymous said...

Dear heart,

Che and Ali, too biggies for my admiring eyes. Nice pair, like Cuba and boxing. Beautiful faces go with beautiful lives, usually? Why did he have to leave Cuba and Fidel? Or why did Ali's daughter turn boxer too? Silly me. You must be strikingly fresh from high school that time that a revolutionary would love to take you with him in paradise he dreamt all his life.

Josie said...

Hearts, I was thinking about this very thing today, as I was walking home from work. I met someone with whom I shared a mutual friend from long, long ago and far, far away. I pondered about how much I have changed since then, and in almost every for the better, in my estimation anyway. Why does our society worship youth? Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are three examples of young women who will probable mellow into very nice women when they get older, but right now they're a mess. I wouldn't trade places with any of them.

Mohammed Ali has lived his life with grace and dignity. He walks to the beat of his own drummer.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Enjoy your book! Ali is the kind of man who would inspire many a writer.


Thank you for your nice comments, and your visit.


You are more optimistic than I if you think those girls will become very nice women. So far, none of them has any reason to change, really, as their "punishments" for bad behavior are little more than a joke.

Mohammed Ali has more grace and dignity than all of them put together.

The CEO said...

Hearts, your insight into Ali is clear, concise, and accurate; not to exclude amazing.

Ali is more than one of the great sports heroes of the 20th Century; he is one of the great Men of the 20th Century.

Thank you.

Bob said...

I remember being especially moved when he lit the flame at the olympics in atlanta.

Lex said...

I loved this, Heart. We absolutely should evolve, shouldn't we?

On some level, reading this made me feel like I received long awaited permission to change my views, without feeling disloyal to my former self or conceding that I was wrong then.

Thanks for that.

Dumdad said...

What a beautifully written and thoughtful post. We should all take to heart the Ali quote about age; the Western world in general, though, seems to regard getting old as disgraceful and would prefer to keep it out of sight by the use of a scalpel or botox or anything to deny the passage of time.

Ian Lidster said...

Lovely profile, my friend. Ali is one of my genuine heroes even though, like you, I detest the violence of boxing. But, the man, as you so aptly outline, is so much more than the sum of his parts, and I weep for the affliction that his career in the ring wrought.
As for age, I have found genuine virtues in growing older, including much greater belief in myself, truly not giving a shit what others think, and finding the striving young not necessarily affronting, just amusing. At the same time, I also cherish (though not envy) some of the brighter young people I've known. I don't necessarily like the fact I'm getting older, but I hearken to the wisdom of actress Bette Davis, who said: "Old age isn't for sissies."

thailandchani said...

This is one of the best posts you've ever written on this site! :)

You make some really good points and I wish I had the answer. In US (and North American culture), people are viewed as disposable and age is just one of the many excuses.

In many cultures, including Native American and Thai, the elders are considered a resource for wisdom.

(I know you already know all of this. I'm just saying... :)

I wish US/NA culture would change.. but I just don't have much hope for it.



heartinsanfrancisco said...


You're right. Ali is one of the great men of all time. There is nobody like him.


I remember that, too. He was already afflicted with his terrible disease, but he was there, shimmering in white clothes.


I have another favorite quote about this from Emerson: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

I didn't include it in the post because it might have diluted the focus, which was on Ali.


It's sad that we are a society that places more importance on exteriors than on what is inside a person.


I've always loved that Bette Davis quote.

One of my favorite poems is "the Ruined Maid" by Thomas Hardy because of its great line, "Some polish is gained with one's ruin."


Nor do I. I think that America leads the world in shallowness. It's a tough place to grow old because although we may have accrued some wisdom, few want to hear it since they are focused on crow's feet and gray hairs.

There seems to be an aggressive need to put us in our places instead of benefiting from our experiences.

I think it must also be a tough time to be young because of the extreme pressures to be more and have more earlier.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. I certainly do not do all I could. Wish I could do more.

furiousBall said...

Very nice post. I can't remember who said this, but I like it.

"When I was 21 I thought I knew everything. When I was 31, I thought I knew myself. When I was 41 I realized I know nothing about myself or anybody else for that matter too."

WNG said...

Sometimes I assume that just because I admire someone and find them fascinating that everyone else feels the same way. Thanks for sharing one of my heros with all of your readers.

Open Grove Claudia said...

That's really beautiful. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Anonymous said...

HinSF_ Your posts are always so. . . full. You stradle the simplicity of your words, your sentences with a heavy dose of emotion, of information. That is an incredible gift you have.

Ali is and was just an amazing man, I agree. Each time I learn more about him (this post taught me much) I am reminded about that brain of his and how he was "the greatest" in so many ways. As you said, odd that such wisdom comes from a man who used his fist to earn his living, such wisdom comes from a brain battered about by that profession.

Beautiful and lovely, thank you.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Me, too. I really would like to make more of my life than I have to date.


That's a nice quote, and so true.


Join the club. It's important to recognize those special people who live inspirational lives because they show us the way.


Thank you for reading them.


I have come to believe that people really do usually know who they are, and when Ali told us that he was the greatest, he was simply stating the truth.

MsLittlePea said...

What a great message! Especially since my birthday was a few days ago. When my best friend called to wish me Happy Birthday we talked about this very thing. She asked how I felt about getting older and I said, I would never go back to the same person I was ten years ago, not because I don't like who I was-I do. I just like how much I've grown and learned and look forward to more growing and learning.

Oh-and Ali. Remember the opening ceremony for the summer Olympics in Atlanta? Him standing there with that torch in his hand was such a beautiful moment that I'll never forget.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

Sweet Pea,

I hope your birthday was as special as you are.

Happy birthday again, and happy growing and learning for many years to come.

Jocelyn said...

Now don't go knockin' George Forman. I have a little crush on him and his smile. But your point is taken, and I am, right now, in a state of surprise at myself that I, like you, can admire boxers so much. I've never actually sat through a boxing, er, match (set? game? bout? YES, bout?!!), but I do have a respect for Ali, well articulated in this typically lovely post.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I hope that you and your George Foreman grill will live happily ever after.

When I was a child, I watched boxing matches on TV with my father, who had been a Golden Gloves boxer in his youth.

Because it was time spent with him, I acted enthusiastic, but was secretly appalled at the sight of men punching each other. I have never seen a live match, and am quite sure I never will.

But as we all agree, Mohammed Ali is so much more than the sport he made glamorous to so many.

CS said...

A resounding Amen to this one.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


A resounding thanks.

Molly said...

Nodding and smiling right along with Rise. Never knew all those details about Ali. Love that quote. It proves that even though boxing [which I loathe] damaged his body, his mind was unscathed. Heres hoping we can all grow old so gracefully...

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It's especially tragic to see someone with a superbly conditioned body lose his physical strength, but how very encouraging to realize that the mind can continue to function so magnificently.

I think that if we are graceful to begin with, we do have a good chance of growing old in that fashion, as Ali has.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...


You have done it once again, as always!

Your portrayal of Ali is deep and so very insightful, I loved it.

I thought the best part of this was "Mohammed Ali chose the most surprising arena in which to express his charismatic personality, and in so doing, he brought a rare kind of beauty to what is normally the least beautiful of sports."


Scarlett & Viaggiatore

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much.

It would be difficult not to be inspired by such a man.

katrice said...

This is a beautiful post! I remember my dad admiring Ali, and contrary to the rest of my nature, I love boxing for some reason. Thanks for this! I feel a change happening in me, and I needed permission to be okay with that.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Change is natural, but we need to take charge of it so that it goes in the right direction.

It's too easy to stagnate because we fear change, or because we feel bound by our former positions.

We are meant to evolve through life, to make sure that we do, indeed, change for the better.

velvet said...

Ali came to pay a spontaneous visit to our school when I lived in the Middle East. All that I'd known of him up to that point was the junk that the media poured out about him, but he proved to be such a humble, wise, and inspiring individual that I came away from the speech completely in awe of him.

He really is The Greatest.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


What a wonderful story! I'm so delighted that you shared it with us.

Ali truly is the real deal, a genuinely good man.

thethinker said...

Very well written.

I didn't really know much about Ali before reading this.

Odat said...

Thank you for a most beutiful tribute...I've watched him on a few occasions (on tv...and you can see that he is genuine)...

"The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age." (Lucille Ball)


heartinsanfrancisco said...


People are always surprising, and some have unexpected depths and wisdom, which they are willing to share.


I never lie about my age. I would rather people thought I looked young for 124 than wonder why I look so beat-up for whatever age I'm claiming.

Dan said...

Watching Ali as a kid is one of the best memories I have of childhood.

Hey, you're getting so many comments these days maybe I'll be too intimidated to visit as well!


heartinsanfrancisco said...

Hi Dan!

Welcome back.

You pegged it. Since I usually feel compelled to read the comments that preceded mine, it has made it difficult to visit you and your 637 friends.

Watching Ali and marveling was one of the joys of my childhood, too. So how wonderful that he is still around to inspire us.

rob said...

Nicely-written biog of a fascinating man. Thanks.

PS as a kid I shook his (massive) hand.

Liz said...

I remember how some of my cousins used to have pretend boxing matches. Everyone had to draw straws over who got to be Muhammad Ali. We were all such fans of his. That's a great quote from him and I'll be thinking about that for awhile. I don't lie about my age either, but I'm still wondering about that years to wisdom ration. ;0

heartinsanfrancisco said...


That's impressive, as was his hand, I'm sure.

I just checked out your blog, and love that you list your occupation as "misanthropologist." Is that someone who studies other cultures and hates all of them?

Thank you for coming by.


So am I. If you figure it out, please enlighten me.

I think that Ali was a hero to most children because of his great good nature and his charisma. He has always had his own sunshine warming the world around him, so much better than the miserable role models of today.

Craze said...

Excellent post. While I've always been an Ali fan I didn't know a lot of that. What a fair and generous person he is, even though he could have easily chosen another route.

As for aging, I agree, we must move gracefully through the phases of our life. Sometimes we do get stuck but something eventually nudges us along.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


It does, except in those sad cases where people are in complete denial of their own aging, which they probably wouldn't be if our society didn't attach such negativity to the process.

Thank you for your visit!

liv said...

Beautifully written. And I echo meno in every respect.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much!

And it's so very nice to see you here for the first time.

urban-urchin said...

I like others here, didn't know all this about Ali. What a beautiful post.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...


I think you already got this, but you are always such an inspiring writer that I could not let my appreciation go untold...

I awarded you with a thoughtful blogger award on my page... please drop by when you get a chance, and pick it up.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Thank you so much. I think that Ali is a good example of someone who is thought of in terms of his profession, but is so much more.

And I find that encouraging.


You are much too kind. I did not get this one, but the THINKING blogger award.

In fact, I hadn't heard of this one until Sognatrice gave it to you.

Thank you for Thinking of me. :)

merjoem32 said...

Ali was one of the greatest boxing stars of all time. He dominated his opponents in impressive fashion. He has transcended the sport of boxing.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


I agree completely. He transcended the sport as well as all his opponents, and now he is transcending Parkinson's disease.

His qualities of spirit are truly transcendent.

Thank you for visiting here.