Muhammad Ali – A Rotarian at Heart

Some might say Muhammad Ali’s greatest accomplishment might have been the courage he showed after his boxing career ended.

He devoted his life to helping promote world peace, civil rights, cross-cultural understanding, interfaith relations, humanitarianism, hunger relief, and the commonality of basic human values. His work as an ambassador for peace began in 1985, when he flew to Lebanon to secure the release of four hostages. Ali also made goodwill missions to Afghanistan and North Korea; delivered over $1 million in medical aid to Cuba; traveled to Iraq to secure the release of 15 United States hostages during the first Gulf War; and journeyed to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela upon his release from prison. His attempt to free two American hikers held captive in Iran reinforced his tireless commitment to promoting freedom, tolerance, and humanity around the world.

Throughout his boxing career, Ali’s highly publicized fights in locales such as Kinshasa, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur brought increased global attention to the developing world. Today, his foundation continues to serve those in need overseas, providing over 232 million meals to the world’s hungry. Ali has hand-delivered food and medical supplies to children in Cote D’Ivoire, Indonesia, Mexico, and Morocco, among other countries.

In addition to his international efforts, Ali was equally devoted to helping charities at home. He visited countless numbers of soup kitchens and hospitals, and helped organizations including the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics. He also developed Celebrity Fight Night, which generates funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

Ali once said, “I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer. More than just the three-time heavyweight champion. I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world.”

In November 2005, Ali and his wife Lonnie opened the Muhammad Ali Center in their hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Both an education center and museum experience, the Ali Center inspires children and adults to be as great as they can be, and encourages people around the globe to form new commitments in their lives in areas of personal growth, integrity, and respect for others.

Muhammad Ali has received some of the world’s most prestigious awards. He has been honored by Amnesty International with their “Lifetime Achievement Award.” Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations and former Liberty Medal recipient, bestowed him with a citation as “United Nations Messenger of Peace.” Ali also was named the “International Ambassador of Jubilee 2000,” a global organization dedicated to relieving debt in developing nations. In 2005, he was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Sounds like he believed in Service Above Self like many Rotarians working to build goodwill and peace around the world.

Room with Muhammad Ali –  By: Nikos Michalis Spanakos, Rotary Club of Hallandale Beach

My twin brother, Petros, and I first met Cassius Clay at a tournament in Madison, Wis., in 1959. Here’s this young black kid, all of 17, making all these outrageous remarks. He told everyone he was going to make the team for the Pan American Games, then he was going to win a gold medal at the Olympics, then he was going to become the champion of the world. I thought he was delusional. Well, he didn’t make the Pan Am Games, but he did win the Olympic gold and he did become champ, so two out three ain’t bad.

We spent a lot of time with Cassius – back then he was known as Cassius Clay – and got to know him quite well. We lived together when we were training for the U.S. boxing team, and later we were roommates at the Rome Olympics. He would always make these sly remarks. When he called my brother he would say, “Has Nikos grown any?” Because I was a short guy. Sometimes he would call me “Mr. Greek.” We trained together and ate together, but because of segregation, we could never socialize. There was this invisible curtain between the white athletes and the black ones. It’s something I regret to this day.

Cassius was so desperately poor. I remember that. He would offer to wash our underwear or our socks for 15 cents. He would give you a rubdown or what he called a “brain massage” for two bits. He was always begging for money, because he didn’t have much growing up.

la-sp-sn-muhammad-ali-refused-draft-20160428He was not real popular among his teammates. Everything that came out of his mouth was about himself. And it’s hard to like someone like that. But I came to see that he was a decent human who was up against a lot. He came out of poverty. He was ostracized and belittled during his youth, so maybe all the boasting was his way of fighting back.

Of course, his saving grace was that he was a phenomenal athlete. He could do everything wrong in the book because he had such remarkable reflexes. He could drop his hands by his hips and get away with it. He had courage, too. I saw it in his eyes. He went up against some of the best pros and never took a step back. He would go punch for punch.

I’ll tell you a story I never told anybody else. When we were fighting in the Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago, they set up these cots so we could rest between fights, and I remember Cassius was on his knees next to the cot, praying. He was a Christian back then. He used to listen to these Southern Baptist radio programs and he would go berserk, screaming and shouting and running around. Whatever Cassius did, he wanted to make sure everyone knew about it. Later, down in Miami, he converted to being a Muslim. He was a deep believer when it came to religion.

A few years after the Olympics, I invited him to visit my students when I was teaching business in Brooklyn, N.Y., and he was telling them, you know, “You people don’t have any language.” He said a few words in Swahili, just to make the point, and an elderly black man in the crowd said something back to him in Swahili. He had no idea what the man had said, so he asked me who the guy was. “That’s our Swahili teacher,” I told him. He flashed that smile of his. “Nick, you’re trying to make me look bad in front of my people!” He knew he had been found out, but he made a joke out of it. That was pure Ali.

He had such gifts. But he didn’t know when to quit. All the punches caught up with him. He got Parkinson’s disease in 1984 and lived with it for 32 years before he died. His brain became a prison cell. That’s where I really felt profound sorrow for him.

What I admire most about Ali is his self-belief. He was this brash young kid who had an outrageous dream, and he made that dream come true. At 17, he knew he was going to be a world champion. Think about that. That’s amazing.

– As told to Steve Almond

Author: Aaron Fritz

Joined Rotary in 1999. Past President of the Highlands Ranch Rotary Club, Charter Member of the Rotary Club of Castle Pines, Past President of the Rotary eClub of Arizona, and current Assistant Governor for District 5490. Multiple Paul Harris Fellow. 2nd Generation Rotarian.