Something strange happened to me on Friday night. I grabbed a T-shirt off a shelf and headed for bed, turned on ESPN and then drifted off. I awoke at about 12:30 a.m. and realized the television was still on. As I reached for the remote, I heard and then saw the news. Muhammad Ali was dead at the age of 74.
It was only in the bathroom mirror that I realized the T-shirt I was wearing bore the famous image of Ali standing over the prone figure of Sonny Liston at their controversial fight in Lewiston, Maine. The legend over the photo on my shirt said “The Greatest.”
It made me recall some professional and personal connections, however tenuous, I had with the man whose athletic prowess and political actions shook up the world.
On the professional side, I always admired Ali as a verbal performer, a pre-rap rapper whose improvisational skills, especially with his foil Howard Cosell — along with his delivery of rhymes written by his friend and trainer Drew Bundini Brown — made him so fun to watch.
It was Brown who is said to be the author of a poetic couplet that Ali turned into one of the great catchphrases in the history of sports:
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,
Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.
That second line turned out to be redundant and expendable. The first line is fixed in American athletic myth and popular culture.
In those days, boxers fell into two categories: sluggers or dancers. Ali would not be contained. He could knock you out, or dazzle you with the Ali shuffle.
Here’s a professional secret: Writing teachers are always looking for “mentor texts,” examples of language that not only reveal their meaning, but also their means of execution. Once we find an elegant example of rhetoric, we may never let it go.
So it is for me with “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Using my X-ray reading glasses, I examined what made that line work, as expressed in my book “How to Write Short”:
The balanced move is best exemplified by a famous catchphrase spoken by Muhammad Ali as a young boxer: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." This compound sentence (made up of two equally important main clauses) balances like a seesaw on the pivot of that comma and gains extra strength from its parallel structure, equal syntactical units to express meaning of equal weight. The mirror images go like this: imperative verb, preposition, article, noun. Even with all these, the two halves aren’t precisely equal. The difference between butterfly and bee – the first word long and lyrical, the second short and sharp – creates both rhythm and contrast. Ali is both the beauty and the beast.
Balance, sentence structure, verb forms, emphatic word order, parallelism, even the history of the English language (Anglo Saxon meets Norman French) are working their magic in this iconic line, coming from a man who was sometimes disparaged as the Louisville Lip.
Let me conclude with this personal anecdote. My grandfather Peter Marino worked for many years for the New York State Athletic Commission as a boxing inspector. Between World War II and Vietnam, you could see him sitting stone-faced at ringside of Madison Square Garden, watching fights to make sure everything was on the up-and-up. He checked the gloves of hundreds of fighters, including, I would bet, Ali. He once introduced me to one of the most famous heavyweight fighters of the 20th century, Max Baer, who knew him affectionately as Pete.
Not long ago at an autograph signing, I met Angelo Dundee, Ali’s famous trainer. I had just enough time to tell him that my grandfather used to work the fights at MSG. “You’re Pete Marino’s grandson?” he said with a warm smile. “I knew him!”
Dundee died not long after that. And now Ali has joined him.
Muhammad Ali is a retired American professional boxer who was born on 17th January 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. Despite his having a polarizing and controversial figure during his early stages of his career today most people regard Ali as the greatest boxer in the heavyweight category. In addition to his highly regarded skills in the ring, he also exemplified different values outside the ring that includes insistence on the freedom of religion and racial justice. Ali’s boxing talent was nurtured by a police officer who used to train young boxer after an odd turn of fate. In 1964 just when he had turned twenty-two years, he won the world heavyweight championship. He later changed his name after that bout that also involved joining a group called the Nation of Islam. His strong involvement with the religious beliefs of Islamic and his stand against the involvement of United States in the Vietnam War resulted to him being stripped of his title and also he was arrested.
Ali professional debut came on 29th October 1960 with a sixth round win over Tunney Hunsaker. This marked the begin of a great career for Ali. Ali went on to win a record of 19 out of 19 fights with 15 of them being on a knockout. Until 1963 when he fought Doug Jones, he had made his ring opponents a laughing stroke but on March that year he encountered one of his toughest tests during that period. In 1964 His fight with world number one at the time, Sonny Liston brought out the unexpected outcome. Ali won the match after the seventh round and recorded his status as the one of the greatest fighter. By taking the title from the reigning champion, Ali became the youngest fighter to do so although Mike Tyson broke the record later.
Exile and Comeback
Ali was denied the opportunity to participate in any boxing event in any state in America and also his passport was stripped of him due to his refusal to participate in the military works. This resulted to him not fighting for about three years. Lack of fight time encouraged Ali to advocate for racial justice, religious freedom and his continued criticism of Vietnam War. The city of Atlanta was the first to grant Ali his boxing license despite his case still being in appeal. His return saw Ali win a number of fights before he suffered his first defeat in the professional fight against Joe Frazier.