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Muhammad Ali: His Legacy Will Carry On

June 10th 2016

I have had the great privilege of spending quality time with Muhammad Ali, and it was an experience that still carries long and lasting memories. When I heard of his passing, I was immediately saddened with grief and mourning. However, the more time that I have to reflect, the more the respect I have for him grows. When I first met Muhammad Ali, I thought that I would be teaching him how to beat Parkinson’s disease; instead, he was the teacher. He taught me about strength and courage (believing in yourself while keeping to your beliefs); about the importance of love and respect; about the power of humor; and finally, about my purpose in life.

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As a heavyweight champion of the world, Muhammad Ali was always known for his physical strength. But it was his mental strength that impressed me the most, as I witnessed him constantly delivering powerful punches, intellectually that is. Whether it was a retaliatory punch coming from his personal beliefs (Muhammad’s famous statement: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong… no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”) or the many throws that I personally witnessed with his quick witticisms, they all gave me an enormous amount of respect for this amazing individual, and it just kept growing from every experience that I had with Muhammad.

We all know the story of his refusal to fight in Vietnam, causing him to go to jail and lose his heavyweight title. You have to be mentally though to handle the struggles that he had to endure throughout his life. While growing up, my parents were always teaching me the importance of accepting the many struggles in life that we all go through. Actually, growing up they had the following quote that I would see every morning on the refrigerator: “Struggle is the meaning of life; defeat or victory is in the hands of God. But struggle itself is man’s duty, and should be his joy.” Muhammad Ali showed the world how his courage and strength helped him overcome the many struggles and obstacles that he was faced with.

For example, one very important moment in my interactions with Muhammad was when he said, “I don’t have any problem with Parkinson’s Disease, its YOU guys that do!” His remark hit me really hard because I had many patients who were immobile — in wheelchairs and unable to talk — so it really represented a voice for them, one that I did not even think of. Moreover, it showed me that he was fighting this disease in his head and not in the ring. During my history intake, I asked him if he thought that the Parkinson’s was a result of his constant hits to the head. His answer was, “No one ever was able to hit me in the head,” another example of his (mental) jabs at Parkinson’s.

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Not only did I see Muhammad treat everyone around him with love and respect, but he also made everyone around him feel special, even myself! No matter the color or the religion, Muhammad showed his respect by loving everyone around him. He deeply loved all of his friends. For example, Yank Berry, who is Jewish, was one of Muhammad’s very good friends. Actually it was Yank who personally introduced Muhammad to me.

He also showed his love to children and kids. Muhammad was part of the Global Village Champions Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps feed sick children around the world. One time he was visiting Mexico to promote Global Village, and Muhammad noticed, “Why are there kids separated into the room next door?” The organizers explained that they had to have those children quarantined due to infectious disease. As they continued their explanation, Muhammad walked to the room next door and kissed each child on the lips. This kind of love and compassion makes everyone around Muhammad feel special because of the love and time that he gives to everyone around him.

Whenever I had the opportunity to walk with Muhammad Ali in public, I could feel his love radiating around him. And if Muhammad spent time one-on-one with any person, that person would leave touched and feeling very special. He even made me feel special by calling me “pretty boy.” He would constantly look at me and say those words. I kept telling him to stop calling me that, but it just got him to say it more. Reflecting back, I realize that Muhammad was only showing me his love, and I can now admit that it actually made me feel good and special. This was until I was out one night and saw him calling another person “pretty boy!” However, I observed the reaction and smile from this person, and it was at that time I realized how important and special that he made people feel and the many ways of showing his love.

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Everywhere that Muhammad Ali went, humor was not far behind; and most of the time, he was the instigator! For those who know me, laughter is a big part of my practice. I’m sure you all have heard that “a little laughter can go a long way” or that “laughter is the best medicine.” Muhammad reinforced these statements to me by exemplifying them. Every time I listened to him speak, whether it was to a public audience or a small table, you would almost always hear a roar of laughter after he was done talking. It did not matter to him who you were; he would still make fun of you. He even made fun of me.

One day Muhammad and Yank decided to play a practical joke on me. Muhammad pretended like he was sleeping and every few moments threw a couple of punches in his sleep. Yank told me that they think he’s remembering his fight with Frazier during his sleep, but are not sure. He told me that no doctor could figure out what was going on with him, so I should go closer to examine Muhammad. Little did I know that I was walking into a trap, and as soon as I got close up to Muhammad’s face, his eyes suddenly opened up wide and with a large grin, grabbed my throat with both hands! I took the bait and screamed while jumping back and extending my head. Suddenly, I could hear the roar of laughs of the people around me, as I realized Muhammad had more accomplices to this joke. After my adrenaline came down, I was able to laugh along with the rest of the crew. Laughter brings people together, from good times to tough times, and is a part of all cultures and societies. Muhammad knows the importance of this and uses it to unite the people around him.

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From an early age, Muhammad knew his purpose in life and I believe that it played a strong role in the confidence that was he so eloquently presented, along with helping to create his strong passion, motivation, and drive that we all can identify with the name Muhammad Ali.

The most important and lasting memory that I have of Muhammad was when we were both guest speakers at a conference in Mexico. We were staying at the same hotel, and I wanted to go and chat with him. Normally Muhammad’s room was always filled with people wanting to talk to him, but this time, I was able to walk right in! Muhammad was sitting on the couch, engrossed in his book. It took him a few moments to realize that I was in the room, then he immediately greeted me with, “hey pretty boy.” My response was, “hey Muhammad, what are you reading?” He then looked me in the eyes and said, Purpose of Life, which was visibly implicated in the title of the book. Then he asked me, “What’s your purpose?” Thinking back, it was at this moment that it all came together for me and I realized the real reason that we met.

When he looked at me and asked me my purpose, I immediately responded, “I know my purpose, just like you knew yours… when you were a little kid”. He immediately snapped his head up to look at me, expecting an explanation. I then told him that during his roast party (I believe it was his 59th birthday party that I was fortunate to be invited to), I saw video footage of him saying that he was going to be the “World Champion of the World.” I reminded him that he was just a small child at that time, showing me that he knew his purpose at a very early age. I recalled myself at a similar early age in my life visualizing in my meditations that I was going to be doing something very big in advancing our medical system. Growing up, my confidence (that some people around me called “cockiness”) was just as strong as what I saw in Muhammad. This is the drive that led me to be the best in my field and a strong advocate for science-based natural therapies to be incorporated into our medical services while also helping to make them accessible to the public.

Originally, I thought that I would be teaching Muhammad about Parkinson’s and helping him to beat this disease. Instead, he helped me reinforce my purpose and meaning of life, and made it easy for me to quickly realize this. The interesting thing is that I had never thought about this as my “purpose in life” before. My parents taught me at a very early age to practice meditation. During this practice, you spend time focusing inward and gaining very important quality time for yourself. It’s a time to concentrate on the important things in life and if you practice long enough, then what you are supposed to do in your life becomes very apparent. Muhammad was the first one to ask me what my purpose was, and then I realized that I had known all along.

One’s purpose in life can be a very challenging question to ask. Some will know it instantly and be on their way, while others will need lots of love and support (particularly at early ages), to move forward in accomplishing their dreams and desires. Sometimes it can even take one of life’s many battles before the answer is apparent. A clear example of this latter statement is a brain injury survivor and my former patient, Michael Coss.

Michael Coss survived a horrible car accident, leaving him in a coma. He was fortunate enough to have access to hyperbaric oxygen therapy, and this procedure began to change his life. His story is public knowledge and I was honored to write the preface to his book The Courage to Come Back. This is an amazing heart-felt story of a man who would not give up and pursued every means possible to make a full recovery from a condition that all doctors gave him and his family no hope for. His first speaking words to me (while he was being stretchered by the paramedics into the waiting room) were, “Hey doctor,” to which I replied, “yes, Michael?” I was in shock and disbelief that he was even speaking to me! Michael then stated, “I’m going to run the Boston Marathon.” This was unbelievable coming from a patient just getting out of a coma and still paralyzed and not able to even stand up. It reminded me, once again, of the young Muhammad that said, “I’m going to be the world champion of the world.” Michael knew what he was going to do! He now helps many other brain injury survivors recover to their fullest.
Many times in life, it may not seem easy to fulfill your true desires. Obstacles can be constant roadblocks that are easy for some and very difficult for others. Some need support and strength from the people around them, and others have the courage, motivation, passion, and drive that are self-created and fueled. Muhammad Ali fits into the latter group. But he should be inspirational for all, showing how anyone can make realities turn into dreams, if you put your mind into it.

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Muhammad Ali was much more than a person. For me, he stood for respect, love, strength, confidence, courage, humor, passion, motivation, drive, and ultimately purpose. It is these qualities that made him a legend and I know that he has affected the lives of many people (not just me) around the world to take these strong attributes as tribute and be able to provide and leave their own legacy. Thank you Muhammad for all that you have done and may you rest in peace.

Sincerely,

Zayd Ratansi