Always Get Back Up: Lessons from
Muhammad Ali


Tomorrow is the beginning of Black History Month in the U.S., where we celebrate the achievements of African Americans and honor our country’s culture of diversity.

Last year I wrote about Malcolm X, one of my personal heroes and a great example of non-conformity in the face of relentless pressure to back down. This time, I wanted to look at the life of Muhammad Ali, born as Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ali was firstly a boxer—the Olympic Gold winner for the U.S. in Rome (1960), and later the World Heavyweight Champion. He said he was the greatest and he was. But Ali also stood for something more than boxing, and was willing to stand for it in even if it meant losing everything else he had worked for.

At the height of his career in 1967, Ali refused to be inducted in the military and fight in Vietnam, making the famous pronouncement: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

In the context of the time, to refuse the draft and call to national action, especially as a black man, was an act of disobedience that brought immediate social and legal consequences. Ali was arrested and prosecuted by the U.S. government, stripped of his title by the boxing commissions, and left unable to work for more than three years.

Do you believe in something enough to cope with public censorship, the risk of imprisonment, and the loss of your ability to work? What if you had the opportunity to earn millions of dollars if you just didn’t protest and went along for the ride?

I know I’m not “the greatest,” because I’m not sure I’d always make the right decision. That’s why I enjoy studying the lives of famous non-conformists like Muhammad Ali.

In lighter moments, Ali was also the original rapper, conjuring rhymes on the fly and serving as his own best press agent. You can see him at work here in this media conference:

Here’s another video (this one can’t be embedded, unfortunately) with his greatest recorded sustained effort at poetry, and here are some of my favorite Ali quotes:

“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”

“If Ali says a mosquito can pull a plow, don’t ask how. Hitch him up!”

“If Sonny Liston dreams he can beat me, he better wake up and apologize.”

“I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won!”

“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”

If you have a bit more time, watch this documentary for a more serious look at Ali:

Finally, here’s one more Ali quote I especially like:

?”It’s hard to beat a guy when he’s got his mind made up that he’s going to win.”

Last week I shared this on Facebook, and someone wrote back: “Who cares about some fighter?” Ah yes, when you stand for something, plenty of people won’t care and they won’t get it. But fortunately, plenty of other people do, and the world is a better place for those of us who are inspired.

Muhammad Ali was always more than a fighter. I give respect!


Image: Juni

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  • Rico says:

    Actually, my Dad was asked to work for him. My Dad worked for Broadcast News and just typed in “Bigmouth”. That story was the only one on Cassius Clay that day, and the story went international. Everybody picked it up. The people with M.A. contacted my Dad’s boss and offered him a job. He didn’t take it, obviously.

  • Ken says:

    There’s a great story, I forget the fighter or the book I read it in. This fighter is fighting Ali, a get in shape fight for Ali. He knocks Ali down and heads to the neutral corner. He sees the look on his trainers face as he gets there and says, “He got up, didn’t he?” His trainer just nods.

    He lasts only a few seconds after that, but gets to tell the story of knocking down Ali.

  • David Willis says:

    Ali was once told by a teacher he would never amount to anything. Imagine how he must have felt walking back into that same school years later holding his gold metal. No man can tell you what you will become. That choice is yours. Ali taught that to us all.

  • Amber J. says:

    Great way to kick off Black History Month! It’s good to see people who are not of African descent examining the history. Back in the day, everyone who stood up for the Civil Rights movement was definitely a non-conformist. And thank gosh they were!

  • Fiel says:

    I heard a story of Muhammad Ali on a plane.

    He was just sitting and minding his own business in his seat, and then a stewardess came over and said, “Sir, could you please fasten your seatbelt?”

    “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.”

    “Superman don’t need no plane either.”


  • Contrarian says:

    Ali was, and still is, one of the most charismatic and compelling figures in the modern era. Why?

    During the 1984 Summer Olympics held in LA, many of the biggest sports stars where present, including greats like Michael Jordan, and they followed Ali around like groupies … and all wanted their picture taken with him. Why?

    There have many many great boxers, and some with better records than Ali, so what made him so popular?

    Answer: The power of the spoken word.

    Chris, you mention a few of his quotes, but Ali attracted a cult-like following from around the world because of his powerful and confident use of his words.

    The bible references the power of the spoken word over 500 times, i.e “In the beginning was the word, and the word was God”. ~ John 1:1

    We become what we speak about. We are hung by our tongue. We get what say. We create our world by the words we use.

  • Justin Hamlin says:

    The stories of those that blazed their own trail is always an amazing one. Those who dared to not conform to society, but rather to live their own lives.

    Thanks for the refresher on Ali, it was definitely refreshing.

  • Joel says:

    Fortunately, the world & the internet is big enough for those that don’t care to go find something they do care about (unless what they care about is simply complaining).

  • Jen Gresham says:

    Wow, what a fantastic post. Inspiring and honors a great man. You’re absolutely right to ask: how many of us would step up for what we believe in? How many of us make sure our actions everyday support the person we imagine ourselves to be?

    It’s not something that just happens in crisis, but a character you build and nurture over time. Bravery comes from practice.

    I love this post, Chris. Thanks!!

  • Lisa MacIsaac says:

    Awesome. Just awesome. Thanks again Chris!

  • sharon says:

    I took away some great quotes. Thanks for the info. I always look forward to your bolgs. I’m subcribed to others but I rarely check them out. It can be too much. AONC is in the #1 position.

  • Tessa Zeng says:

    “Do you believe in something enough to cope with public censorship, the risk of imprisonment, and the loss of your ability to work? What if you had the opportunity to earn millions of dollars if you just didn’t protest and went along for the ride?”

    This is literally the kind of dilemma I’ve been playing back and forth in my head lately. Sometimes my dreams seem so impossible because of the kinds of barriers that exist all around me, and I struggle to see a path I can take without compromise to my values. Right now I have such a comfortable life, could stay right where I am, graduate with a high gpa from a prestigious design school, with any number of potential amazing job offers. But going along with that ride, for me, would be way harder in the long run.

    So as someone who’s recently decided it’s all or nothing, and about to hit the ground running… it’s amazing to read about someone who’s done the same, on the site of someone who’s done it as well 🙂

  • jami says:

    By midnight last night, when attempting to write a script for my new website is not yet ready to go live (but should be), I thought about giving up.

    Thanks for posting this inspiring little biography today – I really need(ed) it. 🙂

  • No says:

    I’m not sure if you should *always* get back up. One time too many might leave you with permanently scrambled brains and an inability to feed yourself.

  • Natasha Papousek says:

    What an inspiration! Muhammed Ali was a trailblazer in so many ways. So much to admire and learn from.

  • Chatty says:

    Amen to the Renegades! Thanks Chris for enlightening us with this post. Our World needs more people with an “Ali Attitude” so that we can bring back individual responsibility and less government control.

  • Bolaji O says:

    How much do I love this post?

    THIS MUCH! (stretches arms wide)

    I’ve already shared on Facebook, and if it’s okay with you, I’d love to post about Ali on my site as well.

    May I just say – the comments in here are almost as good as the post itself.

    Great perspectives, personal observations, anecdotes, and jokes.

    Ali brings it all of people.

    Way to go, Chris. My favorite post of yours E-VER.

  • judy says:

    I remember watching MA back when he was Cassiuss Clay with my dad on our b&w tv and feeling immense pride as a little Black girl living in Harlem. When he announced his conversion to Islam, he was criticized and condemned by many – even in the Black community. Then refusing to participate in an unjust war and facing the consequences. Wow!
    He still is a beacon of pride and dignity in the face of his illness, but never losing his wit and compassion for others. You have given us a lot to think about with this post. Oh, to have the courage of a Muhammad Ali – an original non-conformist!

  • Tish Nighswonger says:

    OK- this is what I’m talking about……all of us need to keep the fighter in us everyday!

    In my everyday world between home, 3 kids,10-18yrs, work, TRYING to launch a website and full-time volunteering I loose the fighter in me……when I get stuck in the grind I question myself and what is important, but ALI did everything he could to energize the people around him. His passion for what he believed was not debate-able, whether you agreed with him or not. I need that energy for myself, my life and for my cause- thanks, as always for bringing me right back down to earth! Well done.

  • Jordan Bowman says:

    Talk about self-confidence! This guy believed in himself, something I think we all, myself included, could use a little more of.

  • Courtney says:

    I love this post! Especially the quote: “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.” Reinforces the lesson that sometimes we have to be our own PR agent. It’s sometimes hard for people who care deeply about the world to toot their own horns because it seems self-serving. But at the end of the day, brave people also have to have bravado to go out into the world and not only make others believe that they have what it take to make tremendous change, but to believe it themselves. Thanks for the post!

  • Darlene says:

    Thanks Chris, once again a brilliant post. Like someone else said – I subscribe to a lot of blogs but this is one of the 3 that I read EVERY single post. You and Sean Ogle. Keep it up!

  • Christy says:

    “It’s hard to beat a guy when he’s got his mind made up that he’s going to win.” Great quote! I’ll keep this in mind. Thanks for the uplifting post.

  • Jacquelyn says:

    This post is so timely and well received. I have a picture of Ali training with the quote “Champions aren´t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” I have had it near the back door for 3 years to remind myself along with my son & daughter that we are champions. I also recently made my children watch AKA Cassius Clay on netflix for the purpose of understanding a complete belief in one’s own dream even when the world turns on you.

  • Francois says:

    Ali is one of the great men of our age. He had the courage of his convictions and showed us the path. He was often scorned, belittled, even betrayed. He never stopped showing the way, never stopped blazing his trail, against all odds. We all can learn from his determination and compassion an we should all strive to acquire a tiny bit of his courage and integrity. Plus, he was pretty ;o)
    Thanks Chris for this post.

  • Tommy Krenshaw says:

    This is your best post, Chris.

    BTW, have you checked out Hershel Walker?

    I dreamed last night that I beat him in a fight, so when I woke up I apologized.

    Keep on truckin’….

    Tommy out.

  • Jennifer Blair says:

    Back in the 70’s while other little girls were hearing fairy tales, my dad would sit on the side of my bed and tell me about Mohammed Ali.
    Dad admired him not only for his athletic ability but also for the way stood up for what he believed in.

    That says alot for my father as well. A white man raised in Memphis TN who fought in Viet Nam.

    Mohammed Ali represents the best in all of us.

    Thanks for the post Chris.

  • Max Man in Minneapolis MN says:

    Thanks, Chris. Great quotes! You know, the famous ‘Float like a butterfly, Sting like a bee’ phrase was the intro to an original poem by Ali. Here’s the whole (short) poem, told by the author himself! (last 20-some seconds of this one-minute clip.)

  • Marnie says:

    Wow! I didn’t know he was such a great speaker. Thanks for the enlightenment.

  • Lainey says:

    I recall being sexually harassed at my job and then being retaliated against for it. I dealt with the retaliation for over 5 years until I was able to retire with my state pension. I had no protection from the department I worked in, their investigators protected the offender, and my only concern was to work in a safe and non-hostile working environment. I had to deal with coworkers who shunned me, and administrators who consistently posted me on terrible assignments to get me to crack. In between, while this was going on, the state issued a new sexual harassment policy, which stated that reporting sexual harassment would NOT result in retaliation. This just wasn’t true. After that policy came out, many administrators were increasing their sexual harassment, one by bringing in Phallic cake and placing it on his desk. His position being so high, he thought he was above reproach. This resulted in a subordinate reporting it, and the administrator retiring early, but losing nothing of his

  • Lainey says:

    Continued… losing nothing of his pension. I had no one to back me up. Everyone was too afraid of retaliation. I had other women calling me up complaining, but none were going to report it. They called to complain about it, and say they were in fear of their perpetrators and jobs. I stood alone. The higher boss I finally reported it to had to deal with it by law. But meanwhile, he was sexually harassing many women. To this day, NOTHING is done at this state job to prevent such behavior. Anyone who reports it gets blacklisted and lives a life of hell and retaliation.

  • Lainey says:

    Anyway, my point was that when you do speak your mind and defend your rights or speak truthfully, the powers that be will punish you. Just ask Muhammed Ali!

  • Rico says:

    Lainey: Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds. Albert Einstein. So be it. Conformist lemmings ultimately have no other route.

  • Paul Serwin says:

    What a great article, Chris! Muhammad Ali has always been an inspiration to me. He is a man who stood up for what he believed for and never backed down. He wasn’t interested in impressing anybody, he was only interested in being the strongest and the best. There was never a battle he backed down from.

  • Rick H says:

    Simply put, he “walked the walk”. He was boxing’s zenith and a pretty great role model to boot. Today’s punk’s in the ring couldn’t hold a candle to Muhamed Ali. Great choice Chris!

  • Jean Burman says:

    I saw Muhammed Ali once. He was holidaying on an island in the Whitsundays in Queensland Australia [no kidding – grin] He looked frail but he still had an air of power about him that was indefatigable.

    Art has its proponents of self as well… Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso both believed they were the greatest. And therefore they were. They really really were!

    As an artist… I think I can in some ways understand this thinking. It’s not so much ego… or self love… as a deep respect for the “source” of the power which they’ve been given. The gift… the talent… the ability… quite separate to the self.

    Deep I know… [grin]

  • Elisabeth says:

    Great start to the month with a bio on “The Greatest.” Words create your reality. Ali created a wonderful reality in spite of great odds.

    What makes Ali so great is that he is an inclusive person. He doesn’t want to divide, even as he peacefully, but forcefully, protested the war in Vietnam. Even as he won boxing matches, he was inclusive. He welcomed all peoples. He is generous and willing to share. With everyone.

    He is the epitome of what we call in the States, a class act.

  • Michelle says:

    Hey this is awesome, thanks for this! Is this blog about race? No. But I like that you used this as a nice opportunity for dialogue. Yay!
    – A Black Lady 🙂

  • Carolyn Rubenstein says:

    “Do you believe in something enough to cope with public censorship, the risk of imprisonment, and the loss of your ability to work? What if you had the opportunity to earn millions of dollars if you just didn’t protest and went along for the ride?”

    It’s so incredible to me to think about what I strongly believe in — deep within my core — and then reflect on the question above. For some reason, I’ve never connected dollars with my beliefs. They have always been two distinct aspects of my life. When I ran my non-profit full time, I couldn’t justify any of the money that was donated to go to anything other than what I believed in – what came in, directly went out. So I worked tirelessly to support my org’s financial needs. This attitude ended up hurting my organization in the long-run. However, if I let my beliefs and finances merge, I create gr8er possibility-but it’s a fine line (especially for an all-or-nothing girl!). I need to maintain some separation, but how much – that is the ?

  • Gene Jennings says:

    Here’s an Ali story that I included in a book I wrote a few years ago. If I remember correctly, I found it in Sports Illustrated.

    “When I was a kid in Louisville (KY) I had a job sacking groceries. I found a secondhand bicycle I just had to have. It was blue and beautiful. I didn’t make much money at the grocery but I finally saved up enough to get that secondhand bicycle. I parked it behind the store, proud and happy. I worked hard for it. Then somebody stole it. Just about broke my heart. I walked all over Louisville that summer, looking for that bicycle. I walked and looked, looked and walked. Never found it to this day. But every time I got into the ring, I looked across at the other fighter and told myself, ‘Hey, that’s the guy that stole my bicycle!’”

  • Tom says:

    Great post Chris! I like the cockiness and self confidence of the quotes you cited. That can-do attitude is what makes someone believe anything is possible and strive for it.

  • Dustin says:

    What I find amazing about Ali as well as many other cultural figures is the massive amount of self assurance they project.

    That kind of self assurance is the result of deeply ingrained passionate belief in a cause greater than oneself whether that be religion, social injustice or compassion.

  • Peter Paluska says:

    Amazing. What it’s all about!
    Thanks, Chris

  • Chea says:

    Ali has always had a special place in my heart. Yes, his words were powerful and his sense of humor fantastic, but he is inspirational because of his actions. He took a stand for what he knew to be right and stood his ground under tremendous pressure and punishment. He was a fighter in the best way possible. Thank you for reminding everyone why he is truly The GREATEST.

  • Phil Simon says:

    Wow… I didn’t know about this one:

    ?”It’s hard to beat a guy when he’s got his mind made up that he’s going to win.”


  • Miguel Marfori says:

    XD That was an awesome article!
    Another famous non-conformist. Thanks for this one. Makes me see Muhammad Ali in another light. Oh Chris, you forgot his “other” famous line:
    “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!”

  • Lary says:

    One thing that so many forget about Ali is how funny he was. Some of the interviews between him and Howard Cosell are some of the funniest moments in sports journalism. Probably made Cosell’s career, too!

  • Michel J. Gagnon says:

    I really like the “I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was.”

    It all comes back to beliefs, to knowing deep inside ourselves that we can achieve our goals, toknowing WHY we fight for something and having the unwavering conviction that we can do it.

    Great post!

  • Christian says:

    This article struck a cord with me Chris. It was fantastic. These thoughts have been on my mind a lot lately. Why is it that we’re always so afraid to stand for what we believe in? I loved what you shared here:

    “Do you believe in something enough to cope with public censorship, the risk of imprisonment, and the loss of your ability to work? What if you had the opportunity to earn millions of dollars if you just didn’t protest and went along for the ride?”

  • Bible Babe says:

    I really enjoy your blog when I get a chance to read them, and this one was excellent as usual. In the 70’s, I used to pin magazine photos on the outside of my bedroom door. I put MA’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover on the door. I came home to find it on my bed. Thinkng it had simply fallen down, I put it back up. The next day I found it ripped in two on my bed. My mom’s explanation? Well, it wasn’t pretty. Suffice to say that as a white teenaged girl–it wasn’t ‘appropriate’ to admire a back man, especially one who had stood against the war. I am now 50-odd(and getting odder every day), and I still admire MA’s spirit of ‘I am gonna get up, no matter how much you knock me down’.
    Thanks for the post–keep up the good work, kiddo!

  • SenseiMattKlein says:

    Great story. Ali has always been one of my heroes. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet him years ago, and in person he is one of the gentlest, nicest, most non-arrogant person you could ever hope to meet. Always respected him for standing up for what he believed in.

  • Peter says:

    Enjoyed this article and the video. Love Ali’s smile/grin!

  • M says:

    I have only recently discovered AONC and your work, Chris. I am impressed and inspired and grateful that you do what you do. But your post on Muhammad Ali just took it to another level. Excellent. Simply excellent. Thanks.

  • Mitzi says:

    Hello my family member! I wish to say that this article
    is amazing, great written and come with almost all important infos.
    I’d like to peer more posts like this .

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