I first laid eyes on you as a nine-year-old boy who was just learning to box. I heard many stories about you but only through the lens of my father, Frank Ward, and the tales he would tell me about you when I was growing up. My father was white, yet he identified with you as an African American man who spoke out against segregation, racism, and had a strong belief in his faith as a Muslim. My father was not Muslim, he was Christian, but you still touched him and impacted him in a major way. He boxed in high school and was 15-0 as a heavyweight. He danced in the ring because that’s what you did. He wore all white leather Adidas boxing shoes with red stripes because you did. He ultimately taught me how to box out of his love for you.
I used to watch VHS tapes of you over and over again. I saw your Olympic Gold Medal fight in Rome and wondered if I could one day win a gold medal just like you did. I’m not sure if you actually threw your medal in the Ohio River, but I often wondered if that was true. I’m not sure I could do something like that.
I remember watching your first fight with “The Bear” Sonny Liston. No one believed you could win that fight at that time, except you. I’m not quite sure you even fully believed it or if were you just crazy enough to try. That has always inspired me as well as your match ups with Joe Frazier, especially the last one in Manila. The fight where you said that was the closest you had ever come to death. I wonder if I will ever be taken to that place in a boxing ring and I how I would respond.
I always look back on those moments and the confidence and courage you had as I face the biggest fights and challenges in my own career. You have and will continue to inspire me to have confidence in myself and always be true to what I believe no matter what the naysayers and critics have to say.
I still have no idea how you beat Big George, in Zaire, Africa in 1974. Once again, you were doubted. People said you were too old, washed up, and there was no way you could deal with a power puncher in his prime like George Foreman. First you won over the people in Africa. Then you beat Big George just as the skies burst open and it started to rain. And you once again regained your heavyweight crown. I’ll always remember that moment, even though it was 10 years before I was born. I always wished that you had retired on top as the Heavyweight Champion of the World.
I never had the opportunity to meet you. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t push hard enough or because I didn’t want to see you struggle with Parkinson’s, a disease you and your family courageously fought for 30 plus years. I often wondered if you knew about me or had ever heard about me. To think that my name or anything I’ve done in a boxing ring might have crossed your mind is pretty crazy for me to imagine.
I can go on and on about the influence you’ve had on me and my career, the sport of boxing and the world. You not only dared to be great so many times in your life and career, you became The Greatest! Great in the ring and in all your many other exploits outside the ring, which I believe is our true calling as athletes. It’s not just enjoying the fruits of our labor but taking the time to be a blessing to others, lending our voice, giving our time, talents and our treasure to the world.
Thank you for being an example. Thank you for paving a path for me and so many other athletes who have come behind you and will continue to in the years to come.
“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”- Muhammad Ali
Andre S.O.G. Ward