The tributes to Muhammad Ali have been flowing like the Mississippi River.
His last fight was 35 years ago, against Trevor Berbick, which he lost. Yet the world is mourning as if we’ve lost Mother Teresa all over again.
“I beat people up for a living,” he said about his job.
So why does his death matter so much to the world? Nurses and doctors save lives every day, but do not have such an effect on people’s lives. Why?
Perhaps a better way of asking this question is: why do the sublime become sublime? The news of your passing will be muted, even though you think you’re doing so much good for humanity.
First, Muhammad Ali was not a prisoner of scarcity. If you are too scared to lose your job and pussyfoot around matters that wrench your heart, consider yourself a living dead person.
He was not naive. He knew who paid his bills.
“Boxing,” he once said, “is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.” But he was not afraid of upsetting his paymasters.
He accepted Islam and changed his name; he was born Cassius Clay.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me,” he said.
Jimmy Canon, a newspaper columnist who was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame for his ability to fight with the pen, wrote: “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents.”
In his eyes, and that of millions of white people, Ali was supposed to be like Joe Louis, who was, as Canon wrote, “a credit to his race”.
The champ was unyielding. He didn’t even try to get into the good books of the most respected sports columnist of his time, Red Smith, who wrote: “Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.”
Freedom from scarcity gave Ali the wisdom to be selfless. “I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me, but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors today in America. Black people who are living on welfare; black people who can’t eat; black people who don’t have a future.”
People who want all the success for themselves seldom get it.
It is like jumping into a well and hoping to drink as much as you wish.
You won’t; you will drown.
The worst form of suicide you can commit as a human being is to defend the privilege of the rich. When Ali was drafted to join the US war in Vietnam, he said: “I’m not going 10 000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
He lost his boxing licence and faced a jail term.
Contrary to popular belief, Ali was not a unifier. He was principled and those who shared his values crossed the line to be with him.
In other words, he was not an appeaser.
In the business world, companies that try to appease their customers lose to the ones that delight their customers with innovation.
Ali was widely considered to be the “greatest boxer of all time”, and he fought with flair.
The sublime do not just do their jobs, they add spice to the way they do them.
Whatever you do, make it delectable and, like Muhammad Ali who defied the confines of the ring, you will have an effect on others, in places you scarcely know.
Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency