A Teacher for All Time: What I Learned from Muhammad Ali

Red boxing gloves under spotlightMuhammad Ali started to become famous when I was a teenager. I was one of the crowds of people who had a crush on him. He was a talented boxer, but he was so much more than that. Ali was famous for his funny and wise sayings. My favorite: “The best way to make your dreams come true is to wake up.” Ali was a teacher to many; here’s how he was a teacher to me.

My father liked boxing and talked about it a lot. Boxing didn’t interest me much, but I liked spending time with my father and we watched parts of some of Ali’s most famous bouts on television together. Sometimes Ali looked like he was dancing. He won 29 fights in 6½ years. My father admired his prowess in the ring. I liked his rhymes—“rope-a-dope,” “thrilla in Manila,” “Sonny Liston is great but he’ll fall in eight,” and many more. I adored him because he was handsome and had a great smile. He showed people how you can be serious about your work and have a good time with it, too.

He was smart, an “I am the greatest!” performance artist. Best of all, he was his own man, and he told off anyone he thought deserved it. He told the truth as he saw it, and nobody owned him. That’s how I wanted to be, and with time my understanding of who he was deepened. He went from being someone I was fond of to someone I could learn from. He was honest and courageous and spoke with his own voice, just when I was trying to find a voice of my own. Ali said, “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” I took that in and learned from it.

Like many teachers, he taught with his words, but his best lessons were taught by example. In 1964, Ali became a member of the Nation of Islam, and it was then that he changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. It was his proclamation of independence. Many people were upset by the change and insisted on calling him Cassius Clay anyway, against his wishes. Ali called Cassius Clay was his “slave name”; he was a free man, free to choose his name. Some people, including boxer Ernie Terrell, refused to call him Muhammad Ali; Howard Cosell was one of the relatively few journalists who honored Ali’s wishes.

Ali had the courage of his convictions. On June 20, 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, fined $10,000, and banned from boxing for three years. Losing his boxing license probably cost him millions of dollars at the height of his career, but he said, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” That sounded logical and true to me. He stood up for what he thought was right, no matter what. That’s how I wanted to live, too.

He was smart, an “I am the greatest!” performance artist. Best of all, he was his own man, and he told off anyone he thought deserved it. He told the truth as he saw it, and nobody owned him. That’s how I wanted to be, and with time my understanding of who he was deepened.

Since Ali wasn’t allowed to box, he needed to find another way to earn his living, and so he began speaking at colleges. Like many people who try on a new career, he was terrible at it in the beginning, but he kept at it and got really good at it. He said this about boxing, but it applies to his life outside the ring, too: “Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.” That gave me courage to go through some hard times of my own.

After three years, he was allowed to go back to boxing. Ali won back his WBA title from Terrell, who still insisted on calling him Cassius Clay. If you watch videos of the fight, you can hear Ali taunting Terrell, shouting, “What’s my name?”

Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984. I knew about this horrible and incurable disease firsthand—my father-in-law and a colleague both suffered and died from it. I could not believe at first that Muhammad Ali, so strong and graceful, was similarly afflicted.

He dropped from sight, but returned in 1996 to light the Olympic torch. His body was a shell of what it once was, he trembled, and his face bore the tragic, expressionless Parkinson’s mask. He was physically reduced, but his physical diminution only illuminated the generosity of his soul. He was wobbly, physically weak, and spiritually heroic. As always, Ali was proud of who he was.

Ali died June 3, 2016, at age 74, surrounded by family. Thousands lined up a week later to pay their respects, and millions more mourned from afar. Said his daughter Laila Ali, “He was a fighter inside and outside the ring, who stood up for people.”

He was an honorable man, a teacher and leader who worked hard to make his own dreams, and other people’s, become reality. Muhammad Ali was simply the greatest.


  1. Glenza, J., & Armen, B. (2016, June 10). Muhammad Ali’s funeral: fans line streets of Louisville as burial service begins. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/sport/live/2016/jun/10/muhammad-ali-funeral-procession-louisville-live-updates
  2. Lipsyte, R. (2016, June 4). Muhammad Ali Dies at 74: Titan of Boxing and the 20th The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/04/sports/muhammad-ali-dies.html?_r=0

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Haven


    June 11th, 2016 at 2:39 PM

    My dad has always been a big boxing fan. I think that he disliked Ali for a very long time because during the sixties and seventies he was a controversial figure and my dad thought that he just shirked his obligations by refusing to fight in the Vietnam War when my dad had and didn’t ever really feel like he had the choice not to. I think that later on though, years after that war was over my dad came to respect him as a man, and I know that he shed some tears the day we all learned that Ali had lost his battle against Parkinson’s.
    RIP Ali

  • Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    Dr. Lynn Somerstein

    June 12th, 2016 at 5:36 AM

    Hi Haven,
    What was it, do you think, that changed your Dad’s mind? The passage of time? Something else?
    Thanks for writing,

  • Haven


    June 13th, 2016 at 9:44 AM

    Well I think that past of it was that my dad mellowed a bit himself over time. I think that another part was that the whole mortality of the situation hit home for him when he saw him lighting the Olympic torch, and you know, then he could see the good that he had actually done instead of solely focusing on the things that they would have disagreed about. He saw the love that so many generations had for him, and he started to sort of embrace that too. Live and learn I guess

  • Lynn


    June 13th, 2016 at 5:15 PM

    Thanks Haven,
    How wonderful that your father could see and feel that love and respond to it too.
    Take care,

  • Roy


    June 13th, 2016 at 3:33 PM

    I very much struggle with him because I know that he did all this good and that people loved him but he could be such a braggart and that is not my thing at all. Actions should speak louder then words. If you are as good as you profess then allow the athleticism to show that. It did for him but then he always had to have the words too and honestly that would turn me off. I wouldn’t want my own son or daughter talking like that even if they were the best athletes in the world.

  • Lynn


    June 13th, 2016 at 5:16 PM

    Hi Roy,
    You’ve got plenty of company, lots of people thought he talked too loud. I thought he was a performance artist, myself, and got a kick out him. But like you, I might feel differently if my kids were outspoken like that.
    Take care,

  • Ted


    June 14th, 2016 at 11:26 AM

    You know this is a person that touched many a life when you watched that funeral procession on television. That would have been amazing to be a part of that.

  • monique


    June 14th, 2016 at 2:09 PM

    My parents always loved him, not necessarily for what he did in the boxing ring but I think that it was more for standing up for the oppressed and refusing to give in to what in that time would have been thought of as the right thing to do. he stood his ground, stayed firm in what he believed in even though it meant giving up fame and even money. But he did it and showed the rest of us that believing in yourself and feeling that what you were doing was right was in the end the essence of being a good human being. Peace and love

  • Lynn


    June 14th, 2016 at 4:11 PM

    Hi Monique-
    Peace and love indeed.
    Take care,

  • Lynn


    June 14th, 2016 at 4:12 PM

    Ted, yes, I listened to much of the funeral service on the radio; it was amazing.
    Take care,

  • meygan


    June 17th, 2016 at 10:47 AM

    It’s funny how when someone like this dies, even though you have never met this person intimately and they would have never known you, it can still make such an impact on us.
    When Prince died a few months ago I was just devastated. I loved the music, loved the image, loved the mystery behind that man. His music was with me from childhood to adulthood and it just crushed me when he was gone.
    Funny how these people can make such an impact and we never really have the chance to let them know that.

  • Nanette


    June 18th, 2016 at 9:12 AM

    Great story!

  • Lynn


    June 18th, 2016 at 2:03 PM

    It is amazing the impact that artists can have on people, that’s for sure. I know what you mean.
    Take care, thanks for writing,

  • Rhondi


    June 20th, 2016 at 9:17 AM

    The sports world will never have pure athletes Like Muhammad Ali again. He was one who said what he thought and meant what he said and that was that. Today with endorsement deals and this whole thing about having to be a role model, who is ever going to feel free to do that? Being able to speak your mind in addition to being an athlete is not possible anymore.

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