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“His energy and presence existed much larger than his physical form. He walked with his own atmosphere. His atmosphere was his entourage.”

Nearly a quarter century ago, long before the age of smart phones and digital photos, I was blessed to be in the presence of The Greatest.

Imagine being in the same place at the same time as one of the greatest human beings walking the face of the earth, at one time the most famous living person on the planet, and not having the sense to memorialize the moment in a photo…even though a photo was taken. Regretfully, it happened to me.

Muhammad Ali was well past his athletic prime at the time. A weathered warrior in his early fifties, his fight with Parkinson’s disease already taking a visible toll on his body.  Still, he was an impressive figure. Literally and figuratively. His energy and presence existed much larger than his physical form. He walked with his own atmosphere. His atmosphere was his entourage.

This day I was downtown Minneapolis with a friend. It was a chance occurrence. There was a large crowd gathered in a city center plaza. Soon we discovered the reason for the gathering was Muhammad Ali. I don’t recall exactly why he was there, perhaps a book signing or celebrity endorsement, but we quickly hatched a plan to pitch for a photo.

Those were the days of disposable yellow Kodak cameras – the kind you drop off to a local drug store and wait a day or two for the film to be developed. We put ourselves in the path of The Champ as he exited the store and boldly asked for a picture. He was more than obliging. I remember him putting his arm around my shoulder and giving a friendly, confident squeeze. No real conversation. A simple cordial greeting, smile, and click. The perfect picture.

A fleeting moment forever imprinted in my mind, which is great because the film was never developed. Those were college days, moving to a new residence after every school year. The disposable camera probably wound up in an apartment junk drawer or hidden in a shoebox, discarded as trash many years ago.

The importance of following-up on opportunities, quickly and thoroughly, is a valuable lesson most of us will learn many times over our lifetime.   

 A lost opportunity, but the experiential memory is amazing.

How do you adequately pay tribute to a man as great as Muhammad Ali? A man who, for a full half-century, galvanized and inspired much of the world’s population regardless of race, creed, or color. A man who unabashedly thrived internationally as a voice of confidence, truth, and potential-fulfilled, with a heart to represent and speak for the lesser-heard, under-served, and under-represented people of the world. A man who’s demeanor, confidence, and energy was powerful enough to stand up to the most powerful government in the world in the midst of racial segregation and prejudice in the United States. Not only demanding, but commanding respect and admiration, regardless of opinion about his brashness, race, or athletic ability.

It’s a curious combination…the triad of bravado, wisdom, and compassion. It’s a beautiful combination.

The world is fortunate to have a great deal of Muhammad Ali’s passion, principles and charisma captured in print, audio, and video. Past generations were blessed with his presence, the present generation is being blessed, and future generations will be blessed by his preserved greatness. Indeed, he was a Creator-gifted human being who lived a life true to his beliefs, character, and potential. Collectively, the world expresses our thank you.

Detailing Ali’s athletic accolades is easy – any brief article or history book can list them. More interesting is how Ali’s physical combination of power, speed, agility, and grace mirrored the same tenants in his intellect. His athleticism was a microcosm, just a tiny piece, of the macrocosm of the man. His mental keenness and mental fortitude blended perfectly with his confidence, personality, spiritual-grounding, and love for humanity.  All allowing him to transcend sports to become an iconic, yet relatable, larger-than-life figure championed by all.

Muhammad Ali’s poetic personality and charismatic showmanship created many timeless quotations, many of which could be expounded into self-empowerment chapters of their own.  For the sake of brevity, here are 7 of my favorite Muhammad Ali quotations along with a brief explanation why they resonate with such power.

“We can’t be brave without fear.”

Everyone feels fear…there are zero exceptions to this powerful human emotion. It is not lack of fear that separates us. It is how we respond to fear that separates us. The greatest amongst us are simply braver than their fears and willing to act upon that bravery. Fears faced and conquered shatter perceived limits, and once limits are shattered the realm of unlimited possibility exists. The amazing message of this quotation – feel the fear and do it anyway, or make a conscious choice to live a limited life. That’s no way to live fully.

 “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”

Everyone is gifted with at least one super talent that if pursued and developed will allow them to become great in that area. Finding that super talent, however, is a process many will never undertake. It can be difficult, but living a life of average and mundane is not the purpose of life. In order to discover our greatest gifts we must go against the well-intended advice of average and ordinary, usually coming from those who care about us most. Failure does not lie in not achieving something we set out to pursue, the greatest failure lies in not having the courage to try. The powerful message of this quotation – be courageous, take the risks, and pursue the dreams. Don’t settle for average when greatness is an option.

 “Often it isn’t the mountains ahead that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. If you’re walking the only way to progress along the journey is to continually set one foot in front of the other…time and time and time again. Have you ever tried walking a considerable distance with a stone in your shoe? It may be one of the most annoying sensations imaginable. A smart man will take a moment of pause, remove the stone, and then continue on the journey. With the stone removed, focus once again returns to the bigger picture. The valuable message in this quotation – great things are accomplished in small steps, but to accomplish them you must keep on stepping. At times this may require pause and the removal of small irritations, annoying and unproductive, along the journey.

“Inside of a ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.”

Grit and determination allow us to rise-up in situations where others may elect to stay down. In the pursuit of goals and dreams, or simply along the course of life, everyone gets knocked down. Usually multiple times. It doesn’t matter how strong, smart, or gifted we may be, everyone suffers defeats along the way. Once again, it’s how we respond to the situation that matters. The great ones collect their wits, rise-up, and soon are back in action. The more times you get knocked down and get up, the odds are improving in your favor. The motivational message in this quotation – if you get knocked down, don’t stay down. Rise up and continue to fight. Eventually you’ll be the winner still standing.

 “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

It’s the long hours of work behind the scenes when no one is watching, before the lights come on, before you show up at school or the office, before the big presentation, that makes the stage show shine.  Plain and simple, hard work and discipline are absolutely necessary to achieve great success. Life may look charmed from the outside looking in, but guaranteed it’s the work behind the scenes, the countless hours of practice, that makes the great become The Greatest. The simple message in this quotation – success is no good-luck accident. If you truly want it, be willing to put in the work.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

Perhaps it was a quality rooted in his humble upbringing in the United States’ segregated south, but Muhammad Ali was a humanitarian to the core.  From a young age he exhibited a love, kinship, and heart to help those less fortunate than himself. To stand up for those who would be bullied, picked on, or treated unfairly. This was a quality that seemed to strengthen with Ali’s conversion and life-long practice of Islam. The greatest among us are not takers, they are givers. Perhaps because they are so spiritually filled themselves they feel no need to take. A vessel that is full cannot help but give. A quiet irony in life is the more you give the more you receive. The higher message in this quotations is simple – he who helps the most, wins. In the big picture being of service to our fellow man is being of service to ourselves.

“Me? Whee!”

These two words delivered by Ali at a 1975 Harvard lecture went on record as the shortest poem ever written. At the time he had been asked, “What it’s like to be as great as Ali?” With this two word response, living true to his reputation for playful bravado, he conveyed that being Ali was a lot fun! Some sources argue this poem was meant to be printed as “Me / We” – implying the connectedness of all people, which would hold amazing meaning in itself. Especially coming from Ali the humanitarian, also known as The People’s Champ.  Either way, this two word quotation holds an incredible meaning – either celebrate thyself, or realize we’re all connected and act accordingly.   

Muhammad Ali was a fighter to the very end. A fighter for empowerment, truth, equality, and the fulfillment of human purpose and potential. Indeed, he was an amazing athlete, named Sportsman of the 20th Century, but his skills in the boxing ring are not what made him The Greatest.

At the end of his physical life, even though his movements were shaky and slow, and his speech slurred, his mind was sharp and fully functioning. After all his other organs had failed his HEART would not stop beating. According to his family, for a full 30 minutes his heart just kept beating. A true testament to the strength of his will.

There is an ancient Sanskrit Proverb that says, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”

These words could be no more fitting than for Muhammad Ali. Many sportsman are considered great because of their skills, and other personalities have transcended sports to become iconic figures, but there can be only one ‘The Greatest’.  Muhammad Ali was, and will always be, The Greatest.


Dr. Juneau Robbins is a strong advocate of wellness-empowerment through means of self-responsibility. He is the recipient of several professional honors, including the President’s Choice and Chiropractor of the Year awards from the American Black Chiropractic Association. Find his blog here.

Citizen Contributor

Citizen Education promotes grassroots commentary by lifting up the work of citizen journalists.

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