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Lessons from the Greatest

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

I come from the generation that grew up with Muhammad Ali – I was 7 when he knocked out Sonny Liston; 12 when he knocked out Jerry Quarry in his first fight following his Vietnam War protest inspired boxing ban…. It was the first fight I watched on TV.

I can remember his fights with Joe Frazier and George Foreman almost punch for punch. The Thrilla in Manila was nothing short of Epic. You see, Muhammad Ali is why I became a boxing fan. As his boxing career began to wane — the first loss to Leon Spinks in 1978, Larry Holmes literally pummeling Ali for 11 rounds and then the embarrassing loss to Trevor Berbick, Ali was growing into the Man who we now honor.

Newspapers, airwaves, magazines and social media have been filled with exposes and tributes since he passed earlier this month, making it difficult not to consider this man’s legacy. His fight against Parkinson’s Disease, the humility and grace he displayed while carrying the Olympic Torch and lighting the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, what he meant to his hometown of Louisville, Ky, his commitment to improving race relations and the plight of the worlds poor and disenfranchised are all well documented.

But for me I think maybe his most important legacy is one of transformation: Ali embodied what it means to live a life of change, to use your abilities for the greater good, to sacrifice creature comforts and risk reputation to try and achieve something greater than yourself; in short, to live a life with meaning.

Let’s face it: Cassius Clay was a brash, loud-mouthed egocentric attention getter, but through Muhammad Ali he became one of the world’s greatest humanitarians. Clay created Ali who learned to use the bully pulpit to change the world. Isn’t that what we are all supposed to do?

Ali’s life journey was nothing short of a transfiguration …. a metamorphosis as he evolved from what he was to what he would become. This industry we serve — economic development — is in the midst of a profound transformation. No longer is it about chasing and landing the 800 lb. gorillas. Today it’s about quality of place, talent, innovation and carving your territory in an ever- shrinking global landscape.

Can we transform with the grace and humility displayed by Ali? Can we learn to use our bully pulpit to impact the things that really matter to the communities and regions we serve? Can we rise above our deficiencies and in fact use them as a platform to change things for the better? The easy way is to try and hide our flaws or let someone else tackle the hard work of change; Ali taught us that the hard way is to lead by example, challenge the status quo and reach for something better. He also taught us that the hard way is the better way!

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” is the one Ali quote we all know. But what does it really mean? Most would say graceful like a butterfly yet powerful like a bee, describing his unique boxing style. But maybe it really means the beauty of a butterfly attracts and coalesces so we can strike at change with the precision of a bee’s sting. After all, isn’t that the true essence of the Muhammad Ali we all came to know and love? Isn’t that what we should be doing to help our communities grow? Shouldn’t we be building beautiful and collaborative coalitions that are stronger together than apart so we can tackle the challenges our communities face now and in the future with the precision and focus of a bee? Isn’t that really the legacy of Ali?

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