Muhammad Ali had the gift of gab and a solid jab, but which of Muhammad Ali’s famous quotes is the greatest thing he has ever said?
On Oct. 29, 1960, mere months after winning a boxing gold medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Cassius Clay — better known as Muhammad Ali — made his professional boxing debut. On that night, he scored a six-round unanimous decision win over Tunney Hunsaker.
That evening marked the start of one of the greatest careers in the history of boxing, one that spanned just over 20 years and saw many accolades, very few defeats, plenty of controversy and a lot of memorable moments.
All of which will be displayed in the new Ken Burns four-part documentary dedicated to the life, times and career of Ali that will begin airing on PBS Sunday, Sept. 19 at 8/7c.
By the end of it all, Ali, who passed away in 2016, had six combined reigns with the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles, many different Athlete and Fighter of the Year awards and was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
What are the five greatest things that Muhammad Ali has ever said?
Ali is in the history books as one of the greatest to ever compete in the sport and one of the most influential athletes of his time. The latter doesn’t just refer to his in-ring work, however.
Arguably Ali’s greatest attribute was his words. Inspired by the famous, old-school professional wrestling heel Gorgeous George, Ali didn’t shy from saying how he was going to hurt and finish opponents, showing no uncertainty or doubt in the skills he possessed.
When he talked, people listened. He was unafraid to say how he really felt about his opponents. His words hyped himself. His words hyped up his fights.
He once said Joe Frazier was “too dumb to be champion.” He openly stated how he was going to whip Sonny Liston. He declared himself as a people’s champion and has mentioned viewing opponents as representing the establishment.
He didn’t shy away from any of his opinions, no matter the consequences that came. He refused his drafting into the Vietnam War and criticized the war, citing his faith, and was stripped of the heavyweight championship.
Think about the more modern athletes in combat sports, recently retired or still fighting. Floyd Mayweather, Conor McGregor, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. All were influenced in one way or another by Ali and his words.
In fact, it might not be a stretch to say that most, if not all, modern-day fighters have been influenced, in some way or form, by Ali.
Ali has said a lot of things, but what is the greatest thing he’s ever told?
1. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
It’s perhaps the phrase that is the most commonly associated with Ali. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
It was the perfect quote to describe his in-ring style. Ali was not the overpowering, overwhelming boxer with huge muscles and devastating power. Rather, he was quick with his hands and feet, throwing punches from unusual angles, making his opponents miss their strikes and get thrown off balance.
It was hard for opponents to catch Ali, and even when they did, he was quick with his reflexes and utilized techniques like the rope-a-dope to avoid getting damaged.
Modern-day fight fans might find similarities between this Ali quote and a famous quotable from Conor McGregor: “Precision beats power and timing beats speed.”
This quote was first said by Ali in the lead-up to his first championship contest with Sonny Liston in 1964. In spite of being a heavy underdog against the defending champ, Ali talked a big game to the media. And to the surprise of plenty, Ali defeated Liston after six rounds to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
A rematch would take place just over a year later, with Ali knocking out Liston in the first and providing the sport with one of its most iconic images.
2. “I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”
They say, “Fake it till you make it” right?
Even when people had doubts or criticisms of his actions in and out of the ring, Ali never deterred from staying confident in himself. That isn’t to say he wasn’t realistic, but he kept telling himself a belief — that he was the greatest — until he made it come true.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest.
“Don’t tell me I can’t do something. Don’t tell me it’s impossible. Don’t tell me I’m not the greatest. I’m the double greatest.”
His confidence didn’t deter when he was stripped of the heavyweight championship and essentially banned from boxing after refusing to be drafted. It didn’t go down when he had to fight his way back and ultimately suffered his first career loss in a 1971 heavyweight title fight with Joe Frazier billed as “The Fight of the Century.”
It’s the kind of confidence some of us can only yearn to have — that even when we’re not seen as the best of something, we tell ourselves it, knowing and believing in our own abilities, and work at it and repeat it and bring it into existence.
Maybe the confidence like Ali displayed may be thought of more are boasting and overconfidence, but Ali backed up his talk in the ring.
And Ali never seemed to lack confidence and belief in himself, even if odds seemed stacked against him.
3. “Don’t count the days; make the days count”
There will come a day where every one of us will pass on from this world. It’s a surreal and sad thing to say, but it is inevitable.
Life, and the days we spend on Earth, is a blessing and not a given right, and we never know when our time will come to an end.
That’s why, as Ali preached, it’s important to make the most out of every day and to live your best life.
“Don’t count the days; make the days count.”
Ultimately, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and his health declined over the final years of his life. But Ali’s aura, his celebrity status and, above all else, his legacy, stayed intact — and he is still celebrated to this day as one of the most recognizable and beloved boxers, and human beings.
He waged in some of boxing’s most tremendous battles. He fought for those less fortunate. He supported various causes and touched people’s lives. Ali seemed to not take anything for granted, even with the unshaken confidence he displayed during his career. He seemed to not want any dull moments in his life.
Ali certainly made his days count. And anyone who got to witness his fights and his words, anyone who sees Ali as an influence, should do his or her best to make every moment the best it can be, too.
4. “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘don’t quit…’”
As every athlete who competes in combat sports knows, the battle doesn’t begin on the sound of the bell for the first round of the fight — it begins way before that.
For weeks, even months, before a fight, a fighter is in the gym working his butt off to keep himself or herself in shape, getting into fighting condition and preparing for the opposition he or she is about to face.
The days can be long and tiring. The workouts can get boring, repetitive, tedious, painful. Limits may be pushed; these athletes may wonder if it is even worth it.
Even as one of the greatest to ever fight, Ali was not the biggest lover of all the pre-fight training and preparations. But he knew of the training, commitment and sacrifices that it would take to be a world champion. And he was willing and unafraid to do such.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”
It’s not easy to go through the pain and drain in the gym, but if you make the sacrifices and put yourself through hell now, you will be a champion at whatever it is you do later.
It’s not something that applies to just fighters in the ring; this is a teaching and mindset for life.
5. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
In the twilight of his boxing career, Ali told Time Magazine in 1978 that “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
In the combat sports game, we often tend to first think of Ali’s heavyweight title wins, his trash talk and the battles he had with the likes of Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Sonny Liston.
But in reality, Ali was also a major philanthropist and humanist, doing plenty of good deeds out of respect for not only his faith, but that simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Ali was known for making donations and helping various charities and organizations to help the less fortunate. For example, as stated in the book Greatest Sports Heroes of All Time, Ali is believed to have helped feed more than 22 million people affected by hunger.
In 1990, Ali traveled to Iraq to meet with then-Iraq president Saddam Hussein to negotiate for the release of several American hostages. He also asked the U.S. to donate and come to the aid of those greatly affected by the Rwandan genocide. He was named a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations in 2002.
In 2005, Ali and his wife, Lonnie, opened the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, KY. The non-profit organization displays some of Ali’s memorabilia from his career while also promoting virtues and values, such as loving one another, respecting oneself and peacekeeping.
While Ali had plenty of trash talk and threw fists in the ring, he was known as a virtuous and peace-emphasizing human being outside of it.