The loud noise awakened me with a start; I rushed to the door to see what had happened. As I opened it, I heard a rhythmic shout, “Ali!” “Ali!” “Ali!” “Ali!”  Dawn was just breaking across the small city where we lived in Congo (then called Zaire) but I knew that Muhammad Ali had done the impossible—defeating George Foreman in Kinshasa, in the Rumble in the Jungle.  The fight for the world heavyweight championship belt had started at 4:00 am, local time, to accommodate TV viewers in the United States.

While training in the Congo prior to the fight, Ali developed a special connection with the people of that nation. Indeed, he was beloved, not only in Congo but all across Africa. As one of the handful of Americans in our town, everyone seemed to want my take on the up-coming fight. I assured them all that Ali had no chance. Indeed, I feared for his life once he stepped into the ring with Foreman. The response was unanimous; Ali would win by a knockout!  He did.  For weeks, people talked about little else. Although I had once delivered a speech (for a high school public speaking contest) on why boxing should be banned (for its unrestrained violence, the values it promoted, the rampant corruption, etc.), I always admired Ali. Decades later, I still regret not trying to get tickets for the fight in Kinshasa.

Ali courageously stood up against the Vietnam War even when it resulted in a ban by the boxing world; that cost him an opportunity to compete during what should have been his prime earning years. Ali not only put his career on the line, he subsequently spent his life fighting racism, poverty and injustice.  Later, he also became a powerful advocate for the struggle against Parkinson’s disease with which he was diagnosed in 1984. Muhammad Ali was indeed The Greatest!

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