I don't have to be what you want me to be

Words: Sam Eifling, Grant Olsen, Daniel Roberts, Christopher Benjamin Rucker, Natalie Welch, David Marchese

Photography: Thomas Hoepker/Magnum


Muhammad Ali was larger than life. As a boxer, he dominated. As a human being, he was a guiding light. After he died on June 3rd, the question never seemed to be: "how do we memorialize the champ?" Instead, it was "which part of him do we talk about? How can we encompass such a force in words and pictures? How do we properly celebrate his incredible life?" We asked a number of great writers to examine how what Ali said helped transform him from man to icon.

Never was a person so charming in belligerence than Ali. He had a tendency to wax braggadocious because he knew, as instinctively as any predator, the power that media coverage would have on his persona. He knew, too, that any brag that was founded in truth was no longer a brag. We can joust even now about whether Ali was the greatest athlete of the 20th century, and it could come down to him and Michael Jordan. Say this for the two men: they both enjoyed preternatural gifts as advertisers.

So when Ali said he'd beat Sonny Liston, and then did, twice, and said he'd beat Floyd Patterson, and did, he must have seemed less like a self-aggrandizing upstart and more like he had achieved the only greatness truly within the grasp of each of us: to be a man of his word. It just happened that Ali’s words were—even as jokes, even as taunts, even as doggerel—always fighting words.

Who then would have not believed what he said during his scrap with Uncle Sam over Ali’s refusal to answer his draft order in 1966. That intransigence could’ve landed him in prison for five years. Ali made it clear that outcome would be better than joining what he saw as a corrupt war in Vietnam:

"My conscience won't let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn't put no dogs on me. They didn't rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. Shoot them for what? How could I go shoot them? They’re little poor little black people and little babies and children, women. How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail."

At the time, Ali’s religion was credited, or perhaps blamed, for this hard stance. But it’s clearly a moral stance within a secular framework. He’s explicitly choosing sides in a class conflict, choosing as his brothers the poor and hungry rather than rich America. And implicitly he’s impugning the civil rights attitudes of people who would send him to fight. Like so many of Ali’s rants this one gathers its own momentum, until he’s singing a tune more than playing individual notes. Yet you can’t miss that return to the rhetorical question: How could I shoot them?

Ali’s fighting words of radical peace were, as always, no empty boast. For refusing the draft order, the heavyweight champion was suspended, stripped of his belt, and went three and a half years without a professional bout, living on the largesse of colleges that invited him to speak. He was, everyone knew, a man who could run his mouth. But until he was exiled from boxing, who could’ve guessed he would be so reliable a pacifist?

Principle is far easier to profess when it doesn’t require sacrifice. Ali was the rare public figure who said what he was willing to give up, saw it taken from him, and remained obstinate even as years of his athletic prime were put on ice. He was living proof of the war’s pointless waste.

Ali’s insight wasn’t merely that the war was unjust; it wasn’t that he would sit it out. It was that he had weighed the relative costs of shooting poor people against going to jail. And when you frame it that way, the top-volume braggart takes on an unexpected moral gravity. If someone gave me the option of killing a child or serving three years behind bars, I’d do the time, and without knowing the first thing about you, I expect you would as well. Ali, the nation’s most visible Muslim, was announcing his willingness to forfeit his youth to save his soul.

—Sam Eifling

"Whoever I fight comes at me harder, because if you beat Muhammad Ali, you’ll be the big man, the legend. Beating me is like beating Joe Louis or being the man who shot Jesse James." —Muhammad Ali, Playboy, November 1975

We all look for guidance. When we grow to adulthood there’s this painful moment of recognizing the humanity in your parents, the trauma of realizing that you are nearly the age they were when you were conceived. Then their failures come into focus, and after a period of grief, you must let them become human. Muhammad Ali never became human.

My first recognition of Ali as a cultural icon was seeing his film The Greatest. Muhammad Ali starred as himself, and added substance to his own legend by showing his climb through boxing's ranks. Two years before The Greatest came out, Ali was interviewed by Lawrence Linderman for Playboy, and he used that moment to galvanize the legend put forth in the film. There is no knowing what he thought about himself in his most private moments, but he knew that his message to the world would be easier to send if he was the Jesse James everyone wanted him to be, whether they needed to hate him or love him. To do this, Ali had to destroy his ability to be just a regular guy. He could no longer be just a boxer. Instead he had to embody his own legend.

Ali understood that even though he fought in arguably the greatest era for heavyweight boxing, he could never allow Joe Frazier or George Foreman to eclipse him, let alone Ken Norton or Earnie Shavers. He was always gentle with his praise of lesser fighters, and unforgiving in his public torment of the best of them. It was as though he was saying to them, you can be the lesser known members of the gang because I need you around so I can beat you, but I will never let your star shine more brightly than mine.

There wasn't room in boxing for two legends. When he shouted "I'm the greatest" after toppling Sonny Liston, he did so while drowning out Joe Louis. When he shouted "Ali Bomaye" in Zaire before throngs of fans, there was not just a call for victory, but for killing George Foreman. He routinely dismissed Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, and his former sparring partner Larry Holmes, the man who essentially ended Ali's career.

Can you imagine how hard that must have been for a man like Ali? Under that mask of legend, there must have been a man seeking the camaraderie of other men who understood the pressure of being a heavyweight champion.

In the same Playboy interview, Linderman asks point blank: "Do you think you'll become an American legend?" Ali replies with a dismissal of Foreman—his most recent victory—and of Liston, where his legend started. They were just boxers, he was Ali.

An 18-year-old Cassius Clay won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics, a 35-year-old Muhammad Ali declared himself Jesse James, a 54-year-old Ali lit the torch at the Atlanta Olympics, and a 74-year-old Ali died as a cipher for fighters, coaches, advocates, agitators, people of peace, and people of war. We all need saints, and when Ali saw that the world needed him to be one, he sacrificed being human to become Jesse James.

—Grant Olsen

Asking a boxing fan to pick his or her favorite Muhammad Ali quote is a bit like asking someone to pick his or her favorite color of M&M'S. They’re all so evenly matched, and each has something special that recommends it on a given occasion, and—OH MY GOD—let’s just drop this charade, it’s green. The only acceptable choice is green, and anyone who chooses a different color M&M is a sociopath and should be incapacitated for the benefit of society.

But, with Ali quotes, the choice really is quite difficult, because Ali—like Whitman—contained multitudes, each quotable in his own way, each with its own special flavor. The first temptation is to go with a classic: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” You’ve heard that quote so many times that you likely don’t even process it. You might even have lost all sense of amazement at it, but stop for a second and think about it. Here is a man competing for the heavyweight championship of the planet Earth, a title that entitles its possessor to quite rightfully consider himself the toughest, most dangerous individual on the planet—comparing himself to… insects? How magnificent! How uniquely Ali! We’re used to our athletes comparing themselves to ferocious beasts, warriors of times past, or weapons of mass destruction—but a bee? A sting that is, for those of us not currently in possession of an Epi-Pen, at worst, a trifle uncomfortable? How brilliantly confident Ali must have been to carry the stinger of a bee instead of the bite of a shark or the claw of the tiger. How perfectly suited it was to a man who was so simultaneously, inexplicably, divine and human.

But that quote has been analyzed to death. Let’s move along. Another option is to choose something from Ali’s reflective, humanitarian phase: “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” Well, sure, that is lovely, but it is also perfectly generic. If I told you Abraham Lincoln said that, you would believe it. If I told you Jack Welch said that, you would believe it. If I told you I got that in a fortune cookie, you would believe it. Ali was so special, so unique, how could one possibly choose a quote that could have been said by anyone? All of which brings me to my choice, the green M&M of Muhammad Ali quotes:

“If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologize.”

Why this one quote, over all the countless others? Because it, like Ali, contains multitudes. Like his bee stinger, Ali is taking a familiar trope (“Yeah? In your dreams”) and giving it his own unique spin. No longer content, like his predecessors, to cede the world of fantasy to his opponents, Ali insists on dominance over all things, real or imagined. It’s a display of confidence and brashness unmatched in history. And, despite that, and despite being so uniquely identified with Ali, it’s something that we can all identify with. It’s a line any of us might now borrow in our day-to-day trash talk with our friends, it’s a line that requires no introduction, no translation, no epilogue. It’s Ali being Ali, at his absolute greatest, which is, of course, the greatest of all time.

Daniel Roberts

“He took a few cups of love.
He took one tablespoon of patience,
One teaspoon of generosity,
One pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter,
One pinch of concern.
And then, he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith,
And he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime,
And he served it to each and every deserving person he met.”

—Ali to David Frost on how he would like to be remembered

My father was born with sickle cell anemia. Growing up, he wasn’t allowed to do normal kid things for fear that he would slip into a crisis. He spent the vast majority of his formative years in the hospital and was told by doctors he would never hold a regular job, never marry, never have children, and likely die young. Through his older brother, he learned about Muhammad Ali, a man that outside of skin color shared little in common with my father. Ali stood at a statuesque 6’3", 200 pounds, and was as loud and brash as he was beautiful; my father, by the time he turned 30, was barely six feet, weighed 130 pounds soaking wet, and was extremely quiet. Yet in Ali, my father saw a blueprint for life: put your faith in God; be kind to others; and no matter what, always fight.

Like Ali, my father turned to religion in his early 20s to help give his life structure and direction. The Nation of Islam gave Ali a community that reinforced that his race wasn’t an impediment; my father found a Christian community that showed him his illness didn’t define his worth as a man. In the same way that Ali was kind to fans and those around him, my father was a kind and caring man with a childlike heart. From playing video games to coaching sports he never played, my father wasn’t just involved in me and my sister’s childhoods, he was an active participant. He even worked with the local hospital to raise awareness about sickle cell and give area children with the affliction hope that they could live normal lives. Against all odds, my father married, had two healthy children, and went from being a hospital janitor to starting his own commercial cleaning company.

When I was about eight, we were waiting at the airport for my mom, who was returning from a work trip. An elderly black man with a briefcase slowly sat a few seats down from us. My dad greeted Muhammad Ali with, “Hey, Champ!” and introduced us. Ali, who by this time spoke only in quiet mumbles, was beyond gracious. He told us he was waiting for his wife; they owned a farm not far from where we lived in Indiana. He gave us his autograph and even playfully boxed with my dad. On that day, we were both gleeful children.

My father passed peacefully on April 20, 2014. He did most of the cooking at home and he had a penchant for picking up new recipes and trying them for dinner. I’d like to think that this Ali quote was the first recipe he perfected.
Christopher Benjamin Rucker

I was in middle school when Ali came out. Since all I knew about Ali was that he was a dominant fighter, I decided to do some light research before I hit the theater. Almost immediately, I was drawn to Muhammad Ali’s words. One quote in particular really struck me.

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

Ali was an athlete who appeared so naturally gifted that I was surprised to see him emphasize the importance of training. Up until that point I viewed Ali as more of an urban legend than an actual man. It started to sink in that even the greats start out with a body just like the rest of us. No one’s born a superhero. Everyone has to put in the long, grueling hours of work to become superior athletes. And Ali committed to the work more than anyone ever knew.

But Ali wasn’t just working up to a boxing match. He was preparing to take on the world. The much bigger fight was surrendering his title and his success to stand up against a global war. Ali may have used the world as his stage but it was always for a purpose bigger than himself; his fight was a fight for the betterment of all. Ali didn’t just transcend sports in ways that no one had even thought possible—he was willing to sacrifice them for a higher cause. He didn’t take on the world off of a whim. He had educated himself so that when it came time for him to stand up he had years of knowledge and a solid belief system to hold him steady. He wasn’t standing up for publicity, he was standing up (or sitting out) simply because it was the only option in his mind.

I jotted the quote down in my notebook and, unlike most of my discarded doodles, I returned to it again and again. When I was being bullied in middle school or struggling away from my family on Reservation, I thought of Ali. The kids could tease me all they wanted but I was going to out-work them and be successful in my own right. I was preparing to make it out on my own. When people said I couldn’t make it off the Rez I put in the work in every facet of my life, from school to social, to make sure I not only survived, but thrived. A lot of the work wasn’t extraordinary, like volunteering for events and extra study sessions, but they ultimately added up to my version of success. The easy thing to do would have been to give up and go home. Once I realized the value of the process, it was not just achievement that I craved but that sense of determination and purpose that drove Ali to become The Greatest.

Natalie Welch

Muhammad Ali lived a heroic life, and so we frame that life in heroic terms. Courage. Defiance. Pride. Righteousness. And because Muhammad Ali was a hero, all those terms ring true. But there’s a part of Ali’s being, his importance, his glowing presence here on Earth and wherever he’s shining now, that none of those terms quite get at. Ali’s life was fun wasn’t it? That sense of joy—in his words, his wit, his wealth, his race, his fame, and body—his joy in being himself radiates from my favorite Ali quote.

Ali was delivering a lecture to the Harvard senior class in 1975. (The facts of that sentence alone!) He spoke to the assembled fine young men and women about the big ideas, the ones that make life matter: about the meaning—the true meaning—of friendship, developing one’s heart, making your corner of the world a better place. Then, and this is according to how the great George Plimpton (another all-time bon vivant) told it, someone in the audience yelled out a request for a poem. And Ali said:

“Me? Whee!”

Those two words are commonly cited as the shortest English language poem ever composed; though some folks go with Strickland Gillilan’s “Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes”: Adam / Had ’em,

“Me? Whee!” is it. What could be more fun that being Muhammad Ali at that moment in time? He was a brilliant exception and knew it, reveled in it. He was smart and beautiful, rich and funny. He made a positive difference to the lives of millions. I’d bet he even understood the wry irony inherent in his whole project, that a man who made his living giving and taking brutal punishment also brought forth so much pleasure. He was having a very good time.

I’ve read a lot since Ali passed about how, in his later years, he cut a tragic figure, usually with some caveat that he still had a twinkle in the eye or something like that. I don’t quite get the urge toward the minor fall. He was loved and gave love. He could uplift a room by his being there. He knew magic. As far as I know, he was grateful for the life he’d lived and felt no self-pity. I’d bet that if you’d asked, he’d say, “Me? Whee!” still fit. A life like that? How could it not? And that’s the lesson I take, before his exemplary courage, defiance, and pride: take joy in being alive. Please, get as much whee into your me as possible. It’s why we’re here.

David Marchese