Heroes, Hooligans, and History-Makers
~ By Thirumur David Kiran
It’s been a week since the passing away of one of the greatest men of the 20th Century.
Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay) was a boxer—and a great one as well. Yet, he was so much more than that. He was an icon, a motivator, a fighter, a rebel, and even a saviour to some. He was more than just the poster boy for a golden generation of heavyweight fighters—he was the poster boy for revolution, for making a difference, for standing up for what one believes is right. He didn’t just talk about holding to one’s beliefs; he showed that resolution when he gave up his title, his career, and some of his prime boxing years for a cause that he deemed right. He was an inspiration, a motivation, and a man who changed the world.
Today is his funeral and in the past week, countless tributes, obituaries, and statements have been written in honor of the great man. Trillions of alphabets have been spun into billions of words across millions of documents posted on all forms of electronic media—each with the intention of appreciating the passing legend. I personally have read dozens of them over the past week, as Muhammad Ali was a man that I personally looked up to and admired.
One article in particular caught my eye. It was written by Mike Costello of the BBC and was titled: “The Kid Who Lost a Bike and Found a Calling.” 
If you know me, you will know that I am intrigued with back story. I think that we tend to look upon and admire the end results of the journey of success, yet fail to study the genesis of the success idea and the journey that was travelled in order to bring it about. We obsess over the outward manifestations of success without seeing all the work that went on behind it. As one of my favorite quotes state:
“Champions do not become champions when they win the event, but in the hours, weeks, months and years they spend preparing for it. The victorious performance itself is merely the demonstration of their championship character” – Alan T. Armstrong
I enjoy tracing that journey. Moreover, I am intrigued by what kick-started a successful career. I like to call them “genesis stories.” I always want to know how a success got started. I want to know what made a man what he is. I find—more often than not—that each story has a very interesting beginning. Muhammad Ali’s was no different.
Here is his genesis story: On a cold a windy evening in the downtown area of Louisville, Kentucky, a 12-year-old boy and his friends were scouring stalls inside the Home Exhibition Center. There was a big exhibition going on and they were hoping that they’d score some free popcorn or candy from a generous stall owner or two.
The year was 1954 and the streets weren’t always the safest on this part of town. When the boy emerged from the center, he found to his horror that his bike had been stolen. Anger and frustration came over him like a cloud and he began muttering curses and intended threats towards the unknown hooligan who had taken his prized possession. Oh, how he would hurt him when he found him!
A police officer happened to be walking by at the moment and overheard the boy muttering about how he was going to “whup” the thief who had taken his bicycle. The officer, Joe E. Martin, remarked to the lad, “Sonny, perhaps you’d better learn how to punch before you take on the thief.” He extended the invitation to young Cassius to come to the Columbia Training Center, where he was boxing instructor. The boy showed up the very next day. And the rest is history.
Today, as Muhammad Ali’s body makes its final journey to its place of rest, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect not just on the man, the myth, and the legend, but to give credit to the man who made him what he was.
I cannot imagine a world that hadn’t been touched by Muhammad Ali. Our culture would not be the same without his contribution on it. Not only would fans have missed out on the breathtaking entertainment that he provided through his boxing skills and his theatric personality, but the world would have missed out on his standing up for the truth and his fight for the right. The world would be a lesser place had he not graced it.
This is why I feel it only fair to make this tribute not just to the great Ali, but to Joe Martin as well.
It was Joe Martin who directed him toward the passion that made him great. It was Joe Martin who first gave him the skills that he needed to become “the greatest.” It was Joe Martin who saw beyond the angry young boy in the streets of Louisville who was fixing for a fight and saw a man who could take his fight to the world and make it a better place.
Yes, the world would be a lesser place without Muhammad Ali. And we have Joe Martin to thank for that.
In my profession as a leadership speaker and motivator, I do a lot of teacher training. As schools get ready to kick off the new school year, it is my job to inspire and motivate the teachers and equip them with the tools that they need for the big job that they have ahead. The school year in India is kicking off next Monday, and so I have spent this week with a number of teachers in group settings.
One of the things that I try to help most teachers realize is how important their job is. If any of you are teachers or have been teachers before, you will know how easy it is to get burnt out on your job. Every day, you come face to face with 40 children who are all unique in character and mood swings. Every day, you have to try to convince them to learn. And it is a struggle. Some days, you don’t even want to do it.
I’ll never forget the joke that my father used to tell us about the boy lying in his bed, refusing to go to school. His mother came to the room to try to convince him, but he said: “Mom, I don’t want to go to school. Everybody hates me there. The students hate me, the teachers hate me, the cleaning staff hates me—even the canteen chef hates me! Please don’t make me go.” To which the mother replies, “Son, you have to go! You are the principal!”
As a teacher, sometimes it is easy to compare with those who have more glamorous jobs or are in roles where they receive more recognition and/or publicity. And we in society take on the same view. When we speak of heroes, teachers almost never come to mind. Politicians, actors, scientists, CEOs, founders of big organizations, sport stars—these are all the first names on our lips when the word hero pops into our head. I throw out this question every time to the teachers that I speak to and receive the same answers.
But then I present this reality to them: Every politician, actor, scientist, CEO, founder, and sport star, was—once upon a time—a child in a classroom. Before they became a success, there was a genesis story that made them that way. And more often than not, that genesis story started with a teacher or a mentor—someone who saw past who they were to what they could become.
They say that a teacher affects history; you can never tell where their influence stops. I wholeheartedly agree to that. I tell my teachers, “If you ever want to change the world, please stay right where you are!” There is no need to go out and try to make a difference—the difference is being made every day in their classroom. So what if they are not politicians, actors, scientists, CEOs, founders, or sport stars? The kids in their class will be all that one day and more!
I hold teachers in the highest regard. I save my choicest praise for the ones who help to groom little minds into the future of our planet. They are the ones who shape the destiny of our society and our world.
And so today as the world celebrates Muhammad Ali, I want to also celebrate Joe Martin—the man who gave the world Muhammad Ali. And I want to celebrate all of you wonderful teachers out there—the men and women who are giving us the hope of our future.
May you never see your job as insignificant. May you never see yourself as “just a teacher.” May you never see your job as anything less than it is: a platform to change the world from. You are making a difference. You are changing the world. You are making history. You are heroes! And we are forever grateful to you!