On Friday June 10, 2016, I was aboard an Emirates flight to Chicago enroute to the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, where it emerged that the University of Ilorin, based on its commitment to peace, is the only one in West Africa represented at the “Teaching Peace in the 21st Century” weeklong workshop organised by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies in conjunction with the United States Institute of Peace. During the long flight, what actually caught my fancy was the live coverage of the burial of Muhammad Ali, “a personal hero of mine”, as US President Barack Obama would express the mind of millions of important and ordinary people.
The outpouring of tributes on “the greatest boxer that ever will be” by people of diverse racial and religious orientations was emotionally overwhelming. Ali meant so much to so many!
Former US President Bill Clinton called him “a universal soldier for our common humanity”, Dr Kevin Cosby submitted he “is the property of all people but he is the product of black people in their struggle to be free” and comedian Billy Crystal noted that Ali “taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people not walls.”
To Rabbi Joe Rapport, Muhammad Ali was “the living, breathing embodiment of the greatest we can be” while Imam Zaid Ali Shakir, who concluded the ceremony with prayers, poem and advice, noted that Ali “left an indelible stamp and he will always be known as the people’s champ!”
At the sidelines of the workshop later in Notre Dame, I could not keep my mind off Ali, who by now my regular readers would have known has a place in my heart also. So, at night, in the privacy of my room, I watched online many clips of Ali’s boxing bouts, his eccentricities, his interviews, his drama, and his magical way of using words – to preach, to boast and to awe. You would just love him!
At the end of my engagement, which included reading a number of articles on him in Time, The Economist, The Week, among others, I derived a number of lessons from his career and life, five of which are worthy of sharing with students especially and the youth at large. Why was Ali able to “float like a butterfly” above all his challenges and emerge as a spring of inspiration to virtually everyone everywhere?
One, prepare - because proper preparation prevents poor performance. Muhammad Ali trained hard and prepared well. If Vice-Chancellor Abdul Ganiyu Ambali says “Hardwork pays” and former Vice-Chancellor Is-haq Oloyede tells you “Hardwork does not kill,” you better believe them. As a young man, Ali would not board the school bus, he would rather run the long distance. He was building his body. He trained harder than anyone else but he didn’t find it easy, the way you also don’t find studying easy. According to Ali, “I hated every minute of training but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Believe or leave it, you cannot succeed without suffering while training.
Two, believe in yourself, even if the world wants to put you down. You are what you think. As “the greatest” himself said, “It's lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.” It is belief that fires your imagination. Ali right from his tender age imagined himself a world champion. He lived to translate that imagination into reality. “The man who has no imagination has no wings,” he once said. Based on his belief, he excelled such that beating people in the ring became natural for him. Referring to his successful career as a boxer, he said, “It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I just beat people up.”
Three, brand yourself and you need communication skills to do this. Before the age of advertising and public relations, Muhammad Ali surely knew how to project himself. He made himself visible. For him, “I done handcuffed lightning/ And thrown thunder in jail.” The other day before his victory over Sonny Liston, in February, 1964, Ali drew everyone to the arena. He partly said of the opponent he was to face: “Now Liston disappears from view/ The crowd is getting frantic/ But our radar stations have picked him up/ He’s somewhere over the Atlantic/ Who would have thought when they came for the fight/ That they’d witness the launching of a human satellite?” In essence, his punch would send his opponent straight into the space!
Four, stand for your faith and be courageous. Don’t be afraid of being punished for your religion. Ali was victimized when he became a Muslim. But he stood rock-solid. Though he was not deemed smart enough to join the army earlier, he was suddenly found qualified to fight in Vietnam. Fighting an unjust war is contrary to his faith. He stood his ground as jail starred him in the face apart from being stripped of livelihood. He preferred to be a prisoner of conscience: “Clean out my cell/ And take my tail to jail/ 'Cause better to be in jail fed/ Than to be in Vietnam, dead”. Ali won at the Supreme Court and got his title back later. Ali also demonstrated courage by stepping out with his shaking hands to light the Olympic touch in 1996 despite the debilitating impact of Parkinson's disease on his physical health. He wouldn’t allow anything to stand in his way.
Finally, endure hardship because this life is hard. In his famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight of 1974, Ali endured George Foreman’s devastating ballistic blows (www.mahfouzadedimeji.com/rope-a-dope/). He would later call the fight, which he ultimately won, as the closest thing to death. He endured and persevered and ended up a champion. Winners don’t quit. In this life, to succeed, you’ll have to persevere and endure difficulties a lot.
This is how you will recreate Ali, float like a butterfly above your challenges and sting like a bee all forces against you.