It struck me one night while watching “Dancing with the Stars” that I didn’t really know who Muhammad Ali was. What on earth would a dancing-themed reality television show have to do with one of the world’s boxing greats? For those who aren’t familiar with “Dancing with the Stars,” it’s a dancing competition show in which celebrities without formal dance training are invited on to train with professional dance partners and compete against the other celebrities, with one being eliminated every week. The final celebrity (and their professional dance partner) left standing are awarded the “Mirrorball Trophy” and proclaimed the champions for that season.
In season 4 of the show, Laila Ali competed, paired with dance pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy. I knew her as a tough-as-nails professional boxer who had retired undefeated with a long list of titles. I also knew that she was Muhammad Ali’s daughter. Being that boxers have to be athletic and quick on their feet, I wasn’t surprised that she went far in the show, coming into third place.
As I watched that season, I realized that although I’d heard of Laila’s father, other than being a boxing legend, I didn’t really know much about his career. What made him one of the true greats, as well as one of the most inspirational athletes of all time? While the dancing competition played out on my TV screen, I found myself Googling Muhammad Ali, reading all about his life and the adversity he faced, and amazed at how one man can triumph in the face of a world of cards stacked against him.
I read all about how Ali started training as a kid before winning his first Olympic gold medal at just 18 years old. It seems that boxing was more than his dream; it was also his destiny. In the following years came a whole lineup of wins and medals, including snatching the heavyweight title from the legendary Sonny Liston.
Throughout his career (which would have been amazing enough by itself), Ali was outspoken on political and civil rights issues. After converting to Islam, he changed his name to Cassius Clay (saying that the former was his slave name). He also staunchly refused to be drafted into the military during the Vietnam War, even getting arrested for draft evasion.
When he retired at the age of 39, he closed the chapter on an illustrious boxing career in which he’d gone unbeaten for over 35 years. He’d also made a name for himself as a social and civil rights figure. In the years to come, he was also to become an outspoken advocate for Parkinson’s disease (with which he was diagnosed).
So now I knew. Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxing champion. He was also a civil rights hero and total inspiration to all. Seems odd that I would have discovered all of this through “Dancing with the Stars,” but however I found out, I’m glad I know.