Sample text for The soul of a butterfly : reflections on life's journey / Muhammad Ali with Hana Yasmeen Ali ; photographs by Howard Bingham.


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The Foundation of Life

I can remember, when I was just a kid in Louisville, Kentucky, my mother would wake my brother and me early every Sunday morning. She would come into our room, kiss us on the forehead, and say in a gentle whisper, "Wake up, tinky baby, wake up, Rudy, we're going to thank the Lord!"

My mother would sometimes call me "GG," too, because those were the first syllables I had spoken. After I won the Gold Gloves, I told her that from the very beginning I was trying to say "Golden Gloves." I thought my mother had a tiny little bird nose. I don't know why I thought that, because birds don't have noses, but from the moment I said it we all started calling her Mama Bird. After waking me and Rudy, Bird would cook us a nice breakfast. While we ate, she would iron our best clothes and lay them out on the bed. Then she would call us for a bath. After getting dressed, Rudy and I would go outside to sit on the front porch and shoot marbles before we headed off for Sunday school.

I can remember trying hard not to get dirty. I knew I looked handsome in my freshly ironed shirt and bow tie. When Bird walked out beside my father, Cassius Clay, or Cash, I remember looking up at them with pride, thinking how pretty she looked and how handsome he was with his thick black mustache. Cash would often say to me, "Most men envy me because they can't grow a mustache as long and thick as mine."

What he said has always stuck with me. I think that to him, his mustache was a source of pride. To this day, every so often, I let my own grow.

I had a strong foundation growing up; my parents were loving, affectionate people. Ever since I can remember, my father was always hugging and kissing us. He would say "give me those jaws" (his term for kissing our cheeks). Then he kissed us until our cheeks turned red. Cash always made me feel important. Although, at times my father had a quick temper, and my parents had disagreements, I had a happy home life and I knew that I was loved. My parents made me feel special. When it wasn't my father's affection, it was my mother's stories. Mama Bird was always telling me about the time I was born. She said that I was such a pretty baby, everyone thought I was a girl, and that from the moment they brought me home, Cash was "biting my jaws." My parents weren't perfect, but they each had a loving nature. My father was a painter. He made his living painting murals and signs. Almost every Baptist church around Louisville has his work in them. My father was very talented; I have one of his paintings hanging on my office wall, right above my desk. Cash used to tell people that he wasn't just a painter; he was an artist. Sometimes he would take me and Rudy to work with him. Cash would teach us how to mix the paint and lay out a sign. I could draw a little, but nothing special. It was Rudy that took after Cash. He is an artist, too. Cash used to say that if it weren't for the way things were then, a lot more people would have known what he could do. My father raised us well. He made sure we were surrounded by good people, taught us to always confront the things we feared, and to try to be the best at whatever we did. After delivering his advice, Cash would say, "These are the things my father said to me, and you don't learn them by accident, they have to be taught."

Cash was one of a kind; he was full of life and energy. He loved hugging, kissing, talking, and debating. He was my father and my friend. He was at my side when he could be and we had a lot more good times together than bad.

Sometimes, after school, when we finished our homework, Rudy and I would play outside with some of the other kids in the neighborhood. I used to ask Rudy to throw rocks at me to see if he could hit me. He thought that I was crazy, but no matter how many he threw, he could never hit me. I was too fast. I was running left, and right, ducking, dodging, and jumping out of the way. My brother and I had a lot of fun together, we never really got into fights. My mother used to tell me that when I was about four, whenever she would try to discipline Rudy, I would step in and say, "Don't you spank my baby." Rudy and I have always been close. He's my younger brother and I love him.

I wasn't much trouble as a child, but when I did cut up, Mama Bird just sat me in a corner and put an old bear head rug in the middle of the floor. I was so scared of it, I didn't move an inch. I thought the rug might jump up and bite me. My mother was a gentle lady. She always spoke in a tender voice and I never heard her say a bad thing about anyone. She didn't gossip or meddle in other people's business. She taught us that prejudice was wrong, and to always treat people with love and respect. My mother loved to cook, eat, make clothes, and be with her family. I loved her very much; there's never been anyone better to me in my whole life.

I learned a lot from my parents while I was growing up. I noticed how they remained dignified in the face of injustice. I saw how they responded to the people around them; I witnessed how my mother would forgive, not hate. And how Cash always held his head high and he worked hard. Growing up, we were poor in terms of money, but we were rich to have had so much love and pride in our household. We were raised with strong values and learned the importance of integrity and compassion. More important than the words, I learned by their example.

My mother was a Baptist and my father was a Methodist, but we always went to my mother's church. She taught us everything she believed was true about God. Cash used to say that he let Mama Bird raise us her way, because she was a good Baptist, and that a woman is better than a man, so we should follow our mother.

When I was in junior high school I applied for a job cleaning the blackboards and desks and doing odd jobs at Spalding College in Louisville. Sister James Ella gave me the job. I made a few dollars a week, working under the direction of Sister Ann. Sister James Ella was a sweet lady. She showed me how to clean shelves and sweep the floor. She passed away a few years ago, but I will always remember her. I had a good childhood. There were obstacles, and hardships, but I remained on the straight path. I kept my values in mind, and my faith remained strong. Although my religion would change later in my life, God was always in my heart.

My mother once told me that my confidence in myself made her believe in me. I thought that was funny, because it was her confidence in me that strengthened my belief in myself. I didn't realize it then, but from the very beginning, my parents were helping me build the foundation for my life.

Copyright © 2004 by Muhammad Ali Family Trust

When we arrived at the club, everyone took a seat and enjoyed the music. People were always shocked when they found out that I couldn't dance. But it was true; outside the ring my feet would lose their rhythm and grace, and they wouldn't move to the tune. Regardless, I have always enjoyed listening to good music and, every now and again, I would get up and dance anyway.

I didn't get a chance to meet Sugar Ray that night, but I remember the address of his club like I was reading it from the outside of the building now.

As we were leaving, I noticed a man standing on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street. He stood out because he was holding up a sign that said "buy black." I had never seen any Black man in Louisville do something as bold as that.

Before we left for Italy I tried again to meet Sugar Ray. I walked all the way up Fifth Avenue to 125th Street. I wanted to get his autograph and tell him that I was on my way to the Olympics to win a gold medal. I wanted to tell him that I admired him, and that I was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world by the time I was twenty-one. When I arrived at the club I waited outside all day for Sugar Ray to get there. I didn't mind waiting; I would have stood outside all week if I had to.

It was about ten o'clock when he finally drove up. I was so excited that for the first time in my life, I was speechless. When I pulled myself together, I walked up to Mr. Robinson and told him how far I had come just to see him and how long I had been waiting to get his autograph. I told him that I was going to be the heavyweight champion of the whole world, and that he was my hero.

When I think back, I realize he never really looked at me. He gave me a quick pat on the shoulder and told me, "Later, boy, I'm busy right now." I was crushed. I couldn't believe he brushed me aside like that, especially after I had waited all day for him to show up. I felt as if my feet were made of cement. I couldn't move. I just stood there as I watched Sugar Ray Robinson turn his back to me and walk away. Although I felt hurt and let down, I decided that I wouldn't let my disappointment get the best of me.

I was going to be different when I became a great boxer. I would be the kind of champion that fans could walk up to and talk to. I would shake their hands and sign every autograph, even sign some autographs in advance so that when I was in a hurry, I could still hand them out to people, assuring everyone went home happy.

I was going to go out of my way to show my fans how important they were, and how much I appreciated them.

At that moment, I vowed never to turn a fan away.

I didn't want anyone to feel the disappointment and hurt that I felt that night. I was always going to make time for the people who looked up to me; especially children. I knew that when I became a champion -- and I knew that I would -- I was going to remember what it was like before I made it big. I wasn't going to forget where I came from.

I was going to be my own kind of champion, a champ to all people everywhere in the world. And no matter how high I climbed up the ladder of success, I was going to view the world without looking down on anyone. And I wasn't going to forget the boy that I once was.

I had a golden vision, but before any of it could happen, I had to win at the Olympics.

On the way to and from Rome, I wore a parachute that I bought at an army surplus store. My plan was to drop to the floor as soon as the plane started shaking, with my parachute line ready in my hand, so I could jump out and pull the cord if our plane started to go down. I managed to distract my fear of flying by talking a lot, and before I knew it, we were in Italy. When I got to the Olympic village, I walked around introducing myself to people and shaking everybody's hand. I even remembered most of their names. One of my teammates told me that if I had been running for mayor of the Olympic Village, I would have won the election. We all had a good time, and before long, I was an Olympic gold medalist.

Copyright © 2004 by Muhammad Ali Family Trust

The Boy inside the Man

This is the story of a boy who lived inside of a man.

The boy and man were the same person, with one heart

but two minds between them.

When the boy wanted to run, the man would walk.

When the boy wanted to cry, the man would shout.

When the boy wanted to play, the man would work.

The boy and the man did not see eye to eye on much of anything,

except when it came to matters of the heart.

Both the man and the boy loved and shared alike.

One day the man decided to change his name

and the boy was scared.

He feared he would be forgotten or left behind

with all the other passing memories in time.

But the man reassured the boy that he could not be forgotten.

Because who he had been, and who he would become,

were one and the same, and they would always remain alike.

This helped soothe the frightened boy

and on that fateful day, both the boy and the man

learned what strength was made of.

At first, many people did not respect the man's wish

to be called by his new name and in the beginning

the man was defiant.

But the boy inside reminded him of tolerance,

and this is how they both learned what patience could accomplish.

After some time had passed the man grew wiser.

But the boy remembered all the sad stories -- stories of other

little boys who had faded into memories.

So, he made it a point to hold on.

He focused on remaining strong.

Then, one day, the man was called to war.

The boy might have gone, but the man knew better.

He knew that if he went, the innocent boy inside -- his better self --

would be lost forever.

So both the boy and the man learned courage.

After the man took a stand, holding onto his religious beliefs,

he was stripped of all that the world thought made him special, and the boy became a survivor.

On that day both the boy and man embraced forgiveness.

For the man knew that if he did not let go of his pain,

their heart would harden.

Therefore, the boy and man moved on.

After much time had passed,

after struggling to carry on, the man was vindicated and his career returned to him.

Although the man forgave, the boy remembered his pain.

Yet, through this ordeal the man learned

what faith insured, and the boy learned to endure.

Although the future proved promising and the life of the man

was rewarding, he would face many obstacles

and would continue to be tested.

And through all of the joy, laughter, tears, and pain,

the boy inside the man lived to tell the story;

He survived to share the glory.

-- Hana Yasmeen Ali

I never walked into the ring solely for myself. I knew that the people of the world were watching. I knew that if they could see a strong person who had also suffered hardships, but who had never forgotten his people or where he came from, they might recognize in themselves what they saw in me. I knew that the war I was meant to fight was a spiritual war -- a war that would lift spirits and elevate souls -- not a war that would take other people's lives.

When I look back, I see only what I have accomplished. The price I paid was nothing compared to what I gained. I lost the championship title. I lost three and a half of my prime fighting years. I lost financial security and public acclaim, but I gained something greater by giving it all up --

A title no man or government could ever take away: I was the People's Champion.

Copyright © 2004 by Muhammad Ali Family Trust




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Ali, Muhammad, -- 1942-
Boxers (Sports) -- United States -- Biography.
African American Muslims -- Biography.
Spiritual biography -- United States.