The butterfly and the bee

Published 10:04 am Monday, June 13, 2016

Muhammad Ali died Friday, June 3. He was 74.

I remember cheering as I listened, not to bell-to-bell coverage, but a round-by-round summary on a scratchy transistor radio I’d received as a birthday present when he beat Sonny Liston in 1965.

Yes, Champ, you shook up the world. “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”.

My all-time favorite Ali quote came from the late LA Times sports columnist Jim Murray, who said: “I’d like to borrow Muhammad Ali’s body for 48 hours because there are four women I’d like to make love to, and three guys I’d love to beat the hell out of.”

While Ali is remembered as one of the best heavyweight champions the world has ever seen, boxing was only one aspect of his life. As he wrote in his 2004 memoir, ‘The Soul of a Butterfly’:

“I’d love to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right, who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could … A man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what and a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”

He lived his life dancing around the boxes people tried to put him in. His bravado was legendary, but for those who interviewed him, boasting opened the doors to a deeper understanding of how Ali lived up to being the great athlete he never minded proclaiming to the world that he was.

Ali was a master of illusion, a trickster supreme. Rope-A-Dope was magic, the Rumble in the Jungle was magic, and the Ali Shuffle was magic. The man literally danced around his opponents.

Humor was an undeniable part of Ali’s charm. I’ll never forget how he told of coming back to his hometown of Louisville after the Olympics with a shiny gold medal won in boxing. He went into a diner where blacks weren’t served. Sitting down for a meal and wearing his gold medal he was told, “We don’t serve niggers here”. Ali’s reply, “That’s okay, I don’t eat ‘em either.”

We admire the man who has never stopped using his celebrity for good. Vilified in the sixties at what should have been the height of his career, he became the same man who helped secure the release of 14 American hostages from Iraq in 1990; who, that same year, journeyed to South Africa when Nelson Mandela – another man censured for his beliefs – was released from Robben Island Prison; who traveled to Afghanistan to help struggling schools as a United Nations Messenger of Peace; and who routinely visited sick children around the world, giving them the pleasure of his presence and the inspiration of his example.

And we admire the man who, when his life became restricted by Parkinson’s disease, never lost his ability to still connect with people. “I’m more human now,” he once told an interviewer as his speech was reduced to a whisper and his hands constantly shook. “It’s the God in people that connects them to me.”

The late poet Maya Angelou wrote of Ali: “It wasn’t only what he said and it wasn’t only how he said it; it was both of those things. His steadfast commitment to mortality was the ultimate testament to his greatness.”

Ali said after the 1975 ‘Thrilla in Manila’ third Joe Frazier fight where he absorbed 440 blows, “it was like facing death”. If that’s true, then last Friday for the Champ as he slipped away to glory must have been a breeze. When he got to the Pearly Gates, I hope St. Peter announced: “The Champ is here.”

Rumble, young man, rumble.


Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7211.