Float like a butterfly and be great

I had forgotten that Muhammad Ali was from Louisville.

Perhaps more accurately, I didn’t even know that he was from Louisville. It never crossed my mind when I was planning my solo adventure to Kentucky for the Derby Festival half marathon. Sure, I was all over the baseball angle — the Louisville Slugger Factory and Museum and a trip to Louisville Slugger Field to catch a Triple-A Bats game. But Ali? In all honesty, the center which chronicles his life and boxing career was a pleasant happenstance. And I absolutely had to go and check it out.

Shadow boxing and working the speed bag in the aura of The Champ.

Shadow boxing and working the speed bag in the aura of The Champ.

For the record, I’ve been boxing for nearly two months now. Once a week, I work out with Eric at Fit 2 Box. For an hour we intersperse all different kinds of punching and kicking with weight training. I’ve learned my basic punches — jab, cross, hook — and have thrown them in various combinations. I’ve worked on the heavy bag. I’ve tried to make friends with the speed bag, though we’re having some issues early in our relationship. I’ve worked on my roundhouse and front kicks to the point where Lloyd Dobler would be proud of me. This is a combination of learning a new sport and cross training. Truth be told, I love boxing. It’s not just the opportunity to hit things (though that is pretty awesome, no lie) or the pleasant soreness in my muscles the next day (although I kinda like that, too). I love the way I need to focus, really focus, at the end of a workout. How I have to dig in. How I have find a different gear, not necessarily a harder gear, but a slightly different gear in order to be most effective with my punches and my footwork.

I am not a knowledgeable boxing fan, but I know key events and I’ve always appreciated the sport. So after a month of training and learning more and more about boxing, become more intrigued by the sport with each training session, it might as well have been divine intervention that placed me in Louisville at this time, with an entire morning to while away at the Ali Center.

The two floors of permanent exhibits are fantastic. There are videos, story boards and interactive displays which allow to visitors to get to know the man, not just the boxer. I’m not old enough to remember Muhammad Ali, the controversial political figure though I know the cursory history lesson. The image I have of him in my lifetime is of a former heavyweight champion who belongs to the world. But at the Ali Center I learned so much more.

It’s not all perfect. No story ever is. People questioned his conversion to the Nation of Islam. They couldn’t reconcile his religious beliefs with the way he treated women. They disliked his brash declarations of how great and how pretty he was. They were angry at his refusal to serve in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. There were contradictions certainly. And there’s been very intelligent people who have deconstructed the greater meaning of Muhammad Ali, particularly to the African-American community in the 1960s.

I saw a complicated life story but one that was built on staying true to oneself. The Ali Center frames his legacy on six core principles: Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, Spirituality. They look certain ways in Muhammad Ali’s life story. But they can play a part in all of our own stories, and they look any way we choose. Step into any one of those six principles and you begin to step into your own power. And when you do that, you might just amaze yourself.

As I wandered through the museum, I whipped out my smartphone several times to take notes of quotes I read and heard throughout the exhibits. One in particular stood out:

“I never let anyone talk me out of believing in myself.”

The next day, as I was preparing to jog over to the start line of the half marathon, I slipped back onto my wrist the admission band from my Ali Center visit the day before. On it was the phrase “Be Great.”

There are many ways to define “great.” I only ever have to live up to the definition of “great” I set for myself. And I won’t let anyone, including myself, talk me out of believing in my greatness.

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