Muhammad Ali, one of the world’s greatest boxers and one of the 20th century’s biggest personalities, died on June 3 in Phoenix, after being hospitalized for respiratory problems.
He was 74.
“I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in [Ali’s] shadow,” said NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a Facebook post.
Abdul-Jabbar considered Ali his “friend and mentor.” Ali was also the one who paved the way for Lew Alcindor to convert to Islam and change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971.
The world reaction to the death of the icon that is Ali triggers the memory of another great man who died more than 40 years ago — Bruce Lee.
Both Lee and Ali were legends in their own right. Both were outstanding fighters. An internet search of “Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee” turned up countless posts, speculating who would win in a fight. The two never formally met, but obviously knew of each other and had mutual respect. Lee was in total awe of Ali’s in-ring exploits. Lee was known to often watch video footage of Ali’s matches, and he studied his footwork and jabs. Lee admitted later that some of the footwork in Jeet Kune Do was based on the champ’s moves.
According to the martial arts website, martialartsactionmovies.com, Lee had once hoped to face Ali in a bout. Lee thought of him as a superior fighter with his speed and technicality. Conversely, Ali was a fan of the Asian boxing style, traveling often to Hawaii and the Philippines early in his career in order to hone his craft.
It is interesting to speculate who would have emerged the victor: the one who noticed “the stiffest tree is most easily cracked, while the bamboo or willow survives by bending in the wind” or the one who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.
Beyond the martial arts aspects, these two great individuals would have enjoyed each other’s minds and philosophy. They were beyond questions like who would win in a fight. They are both iconic figures that cared deeply for their people. And they were both known for more than what they could do with their fists.
Ali was a civil rights champion. As Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “At a time when Blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right.”
Lee may not have been a civil rights figure. But he paved the way for other Asian men in Hollywood.
Various doors were closed to Asians in Hollywood before Lee achieved fame. Before Lee debuted in 1966 as the faithful sidekick Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet” and later reached legendary superstardom in kung fu classics like “Fists of Fury” and “Enter the Dragon,” Asian men were largely portrayed as docile servants, unskilled laborers, or evil geniuses. Lee made Asian men lethal, graceful, and cool, even sexy.
It’s also interesting to note that both Lee and Ali influenced and had a great impact on Abdul-Jabbar, who was one of the first, and certainly among the most famous, of Lee’s Los Angeles students. So enamored was Lee by the man then known as Lew Alcindor, that he cast him as the villain in the 1971 movie “The Game of Death.”
Lee, an Asian; Ali, a Black man. Two giants who left a legacy that goes far beyond fighting fists. Perhaps the rest of us can learn a lesson or two from these icons. We are not Asian, nor Black, nor white, or any other label. Simply humans. Lee said it best, “Under the sky, under the heavens, there is but one family.”