When boxer Cassius Clay changed his name in 1964 after converting to Islam, it took some time for ‘Muhammad Ali’ to stick. As I toured the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., last week, I watched footage of old media interviews in which he demanded that reporters and fans use his new name. For many, it took some convincing. Even 20 years later, it was still up for debate, as most of us can recall this classic line from the beloved comedy Coming to America: “his mama named him Clay, I’m ‘a call him Clay.”
However, while the public may have needed coaxing to comply with the boxer’s request to be called Ali, there is one name he gave himself that they seemed to take to with ease: The Greatest. Known as the Louisville Lip, Ali had a way with words, using rhymes to boast his skills, flaunt his good looks, and taunt his opponents. In the midst of his trash talking, one phrase rang the loudest: “I am the greatest.”
Not being much of a boxing fan, I really had no idea when the nickname “The Greatest” originated. My visit to the Center revealed that his use of the name occurred earlier than I would have thought. One of the exhibits read: “Early on, Muhammad Ali called himself ‘The Greatest.’ He later earned the title through talent, hard work, and excellence in the ring.”
So Ali called himself The Greatest before he actually was the greatest? Prior to earning the title Heavyweight Champion of the World? Interesting.
I used to think it was pretty arrogant to crown oneself The Greatest. It seemed like the type of thing you should wait for someone else to say about you. That kind of bold confidence is generally frowned upon. Yet here was this man – this Black man, in the 1960’s, at that – floating across boxing rings, calling himself The Greatest.
It’s easy to brush Ali’s comments off as nothing more than bragging about how good he was. However, upon further consideration, I think there was more to it. I believe that he gave himself that nickname not only to inform the world that he was The Greatest, but also to convince himself. You can’t become what you have not first conceived. Other people may see it in you, and believe it for you – but it will never come to fruition if you don’t first believe that you’re capable of making it happen.
Proverbs 18:21 says “death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Your words can speak life into your dreams or slaughter them. Words really are that powerful. In the beginning, God called everything He created ‘good.’ I think ‘good’ in that instance did not refer solely to what His hands had just done, or the state that each of His creations were already in. ‘Good’ was also prophetic; sure, He was saying that everything was good in that moment, but He was also speaking life, declaring that His creations would be good in the future. And then, even for those other matters in which our human frailties have caused things to be less than good, God still sees their potential, as He “calls those things which are not as though they were.”(Romans 4:17) The power of words.
Ali called himself The Greatest as if he already was. Then he put in the work necessary to back it up. He believed in himself and then the entire world followed suit.
Stop waiting for someone to be your hype man. Don’t press pause on your dreams because you think you need another person to tell you how great you can be. Muhammad Ali is living proof that you can do that yourself.
But will you? Do you have the courage to declare who you are and who you are determined to become? Do you have the drive to find The Greatest in you?
Photos taken at the Muhammad Ali Center. On the left, I was trying my hand at the speed bag. 😉
SheryLeigh is a woman who loves God, words, and people. She is currently living and loving as an author, blogger, poet, and spoken word artist in the Washington, D.C., area.
A communicator by education and trade, SheryLeigh holds a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from Howard University and a Master of Arts in Management from Webster University.