My father once told me that the true measure of a person can be found not in what she or he thought or claimed her- or himself to be, or others thought or claimed her or him to be, nor even the whole of that individual’s life narrative. On the contrary, the true measure of a person, woman or man, can only be determined by examining the response of that person to those truly extraordinary moments—usually moments of crisis—that each of us must face throughout our lives.
He used the 1973 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton as a point of illustration.
On March 31, 1973, Muhammad Ali and Ken Norton faced off in a twelve round heavyweight bout. On that night an undertrained and over-confident Ali entered the ring as the five-to-one favorite and number one contender for the heavyweight crown, while a well trained, cautiously optimistic Norton entered the ring ranked number six.
Though most people knowledgeable of the sweet science of boxing favored Ali and never thought the match would go past five rounds, the fight went the distance, and Norton narrowly won by split decision.
Now while there may be a cautionary tale in this short narrative about over-confidence and lack of preparation, for the purposes of this exposition, the most important detail—that defining moment for which we are searching—is not found there; instead, the most important detail can be found in the fact that the fight even went the full twelve rounds.
As the second round of the fight neared a close, Norton caught Ali squarely in the jaw with a viciously hard overhand right. After the round ended, Ali’s cornermen noticed that blood was coming from his mouth and his mouthpiece was filled with blood, and realizing that most probably his jaw was broken, begged him to quit. However, he refused.
Furthermore, his cornermen later stated, between subsequent rounds as the fight progressed, each time he returned to the corner and spit out his mouthpiece, his mouthpiece was so filled with blood that the water bucket at ringside used to rinse it became bright red with his blood, and they implored him to quit with ever increasing vigor, yet Ali remained resolute and refused.
Ali left the ring that night with his face grotesquely swollen and misshapen, and x-rays later confirmed that his jaw was indeed broken.
Had Ali immediately taken a knee and given up the moment his jaw was broken, certainly he would have been excused. Had he not answered the bell in the third round, certainly everyone would have understood. Had he thrown in the towel at any point after that second round, certainly it would never have otherwise sullied an already legendary career. After all, his jaw was broken.
Can you even imagine the immensity of the pain he endured in the remaining ten rounds with Mandingo—if you do not get that allusion, ask someone older—hitting him all upside and about the head? And I am more than certain that early in the fight, as he admitted later, he realized that he had severely underestimated his opponent and was grossly underprepared and overmatched. His broken jaw presented him the perfect excuse to quit. But he did not. And not only did he not give up and give in, he continued to compete with everything had and nearly pulled out a victory.
Ali did not allow his circumstances prior to entering the fray, in this case his own lack of preparation, become an excuse to quit, nor did he attempt to find fault and place blame outside himself for his shortcomings. In that moment of crisis and period of intense pain because of it, he endured. Even as those closest to him admonished him to resign himself to defeat and forfeit the fight, he stood steadfast.
If someone truly desires to accomplish or achieve something, she or he will make a way; otherwise, she or he will make an excuse.
For me, this moment defines Muhammad Ali and the indomitable spirit and unwavering character that gave rise to and allowed him to accomplish and achieve all that which he is respected and lauded for the world over. And it is this same indomitable spirit and unwavering character to which I aspire.
Rest in peaceful power, elder Muhammad.