Muhammad Ali would have settled to be remembered as a leader. Yes, settled.
In a quote repeated in remembrance after fond remembrance since the boxer and 20th-century icon's death Friday at age 74, Ali shared how he hoped his legacy would endure. In his memoir, "The Soul of a Butterfly: Reflections on Life’s Journey," written with his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, he wrote:
"I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was."
If all that's too much. I guess I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader.
Let those words sink in for a moment. Because they capture the epic scale of Ali's ambition, the principles that guided his transcendent life, the way he defined and characterized the champion that he was.
In the passage, being thought of as a leader seems almost an afterthought. The Greatest Of All Time first mentions the boxing, of course, the heavyweight championships. Then he talks about the kind of man he wanted to be remembered as -- funny, respectful, generous, principled, uniting. Only if that's too tall an order -- if we have trouble remembering all that or perhaps, if his life somehow didn't fully measure up to all that -- he'd settle (yes -- settle!) for a legacy that's "only" as an accomplished boxer and a "leader and champion of his people."
What's remarkable about the quote is that he seems to be saying that these basic human characteristics -- humor, respect, kindness -- as well as standing up for one's beliefs and bringing people together -- would be the ultimate way to be remembered, even if we don't continue to think of him as a leader when he's gone.
Yet at the same time, in saying he would "settle" for being a "leader and a champion of his people," he also seems to value that most. He wants to be recalled yes, as a great boxer, but also as a man who fought for something bigger than himself -- racial injustice and pacifism and a better understanding of the Muslim faith. He seems to be saying two things: One, that those elements of human character and that ability to reconcile differences are the way he defines leadership -- and if we can't remember why he was a leader, he hopes we remember he was one. Yet it can also be read as wanting to be remembered as a champion of his people, even more than for the character of his life.
Of course, in the days since his passing, Ali has been remembered for all of this and so much more. He was called a great boxer and a leader, yes. Much was said about his entertaining and poetic way with words, how his impact went beyond boxing, how he stood his ground and "helped us get used to the America we recognize today," as President Obama said in a statement. But he was also called "the most transforming figure of my time" by his fight promoter. "A hero beyond the ring" by Rev. Jesse Jackson. "A world champion for equality and peace" by the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "The first icon," by NBA star LeBron James.
The Post's Dave Sheinin wrote that "Ali’s death was greeted like that of a head of state," calling him perhaps "the greatest ambassador the United States ever employed." As the eulogies poured in from around the world, Sheinin wrote, "in many cases, words failed." Yet in this moment, as in so many others, Ali's words didn't fail him. He told us not only how to remember him, but how he saw the role of leadership and what he truly valued in this world.