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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Rob Burgess meets Muhammad Ali

Rob Burgess shares with us a tale of his brief encounter with boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and gives us some background on Ali's perhaps lesser known humanitarian convictions and charitable works.

The humanitarian side of Muhammad Ali

As boxing fans, I thought you might enjoy the public service announcement below featuring Muhammad Ali. Mr. Ali has owned a home in the county where I reside for many years.

(It is my understanding that he no longer calls Michigan home and has moved to Arizona. It is not unusual for folks to retire to Arizona where there is a drier climate than in Michigan, a state that is surrounded on three sides by the Great Lakes. However, his home in Berrien Springs, Michigan remains. By the way, rumor has it that Al Capone resided in the house before Mr. Ali, but that is another story.)

Mr. Ali's house is located about 20-30 minutes drive from where I type this.

As a young man growing up watching the Saturday afternoon fights on TV with my dad, I enjoyed Mr. Ali's (i.e., Cassius Clay's) braggadocios nature. I also appreciated that anyone who could stand toe-to-toe with Frazier, Foreman, and Liston was a strong person. I don't care how good you are at "rope-a-dope." A hit from Frazier or Foreman is a hit.

But then I learned to appreciate Mr. Ali even more. During the 1960's, Mr. Ali gave up his championship boxing title and declared himself a conscientious objector and against the war in Vietnam. This was a controversial affair at the time. Many, especially those of the World War II generation, were disappointed that Mr. Ali had not followed in the steps of other famous people, like Elvis Presley, who joined the military and were basically PR men for the military during their time in service.

However, for many in my generation, we admired Mr. Ali even further for his convictions. As a Navy veteran, I never fired a gun once in my four years in the military. I was a radio and TV broadcaster. I joined because my father, who was a church custodian, could not afford the tuition to send me to college. So, I sympathized with Mr. Ali's convictions and beliefs that the war in Vietnam was not a just war and the Vietnamese, a poor people in SE Asia, were not an enemy we should be fighting. In my opinion, Mr. Ali did not hide nor evade the draft. I believe he expressed his Muslim faith as he understood it at the time: a faith of peace.

Personally, I first crossed paths with Mr. Ali about 16 years ago. It was really a chance encounter. I was in a hurry to get to a meeting with a school principal in the school district where I work. As I hurried up the front walk to the school, I passed a well dressed gentleman and a lady. Both were in business attire. One of them was carrying what appeared to me to be a salesman's sample case.

I quickly passed this couple as I headed into the school hurrying to my meeting. As I approached the school, one of my friends who is a special education teacher, was in the doorway with her class of children. They were all waving through the glass as I approached. I had only been in the district for a few months and was thinking "Boy, they like me here at this school. What a great place!"

As I opened the door, my teacher friend said:

"Rob, you just walked past Muhammad Ali!"

I turned and sure enough, the former World Champ was just a few steps behind with his lady colleague. I held the door for Muhammad Ali that day. It was humbling realizing that the teacher and kids were waving at Mr. Ali and not me. Still, I got to hold the door for the Greatest!

Mr. Ali has become good friends with one of the elementary school teachers in that same school. Her husband is an executive with the Whirlpool Corporation which has its headquarters near by. I believe that Mr. Ali had participated in several local non-profit boards and fund raising activities along with this fellow, such as at the local Boys and Girls Club.

That day that Mr. Ali was coming to school I found that out. Mr. Ali loved coming into classrooms full of school children and bringing his bag of magic tricks with him. The "salesman's case" that they were carrying was really his magician's bag. He obviously loved seeing small children smile, laugh, and giggle. Until his health failed him more completely, Mr. Ali visited classroom's throughout the county and shared in the children's joy as he made things disappear or re-appear. (I don't think he would have given Harry Houdini a run for his money, but the hugs and joy the children shared with him showed that they appreciated his talents.)

Not many know of Mr. Ali's love for children. I thought you should.

Muhammad Ali's involvement in raising funds for the hungry of the world is another reason that Mr. Ali is the Greatest (even if his health has obviously deteriorated sharply):

Having seen Mr. Ali as a young and vibrant Cassius Clay and then as a distinguished gentleman who loved doing magic tricks for children, it is hard to watch Mr. Ali's health deteriorate so greatly. However, the fact that he is still willing to put himself out in the public for a cause to benefit poor people in Haiti, who still suffer and are without proper housing in the after math of a devastating earthquake, well, that shows me that Mr. Ali is The Greatest.

So for those Fighting Fathers out there that hope to "float light a butterfly and sting like a bee", remember what Mr. Ali once said:

"I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world."


From Southwest Michigan
Rob Burgess

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