When I began my rabbinic career, I had two options: to be the head rabbi at a synagogue or to be the assistant to a veteran rabbi and learn the ropes under his mentoring. I chose to do the latter, feeling that as a rookie rabbi I would glean much wisdom from being in the shadow of a successful rabbinic leader, wisdom that would make me a better rabbi once I took on the mantle of synagogue leadership on my own. It was a career move I never regretted. In fact, my lifelong connection with the senior rabbi always enhanced my reputation in future career positions.
I thought of this as I watched Facing Ali, a compelling story of the men who fought Muhammad Ali, the great boxing legend. Although each fighter was a champion in his own right, the moments of glory when they were in the ring with the “greatest” was a treasured vignette of their boxing careers, which influenced their lives not only at that moment but for many years afterward.
The documentary recounts the career of Muhammad Ali through archival footage and then switches to the real life narratives of the men who fought him in the ring. Each story is compelling, especially when one compares the contemporary footage of the fight with where these men are today. No longer are they the perfect picture of health and physical power. Now they are older men, vastly wiser through the crucible of life experience. George Chuvalo, a very articulate senior citizen, witnessed the death of three of his sons to drugs and his wife’s suicide after the death of his second son, yet he remains accepting of these major tragedies in his life. He is sad, but not bitter. He shares with the viewer how important are one’s loving relationships in life. Love, he observes, makes you feel strong, tender, secure and important. This is the wisdom of man who has become, through adversity, very reflective about what is truly valuable in life.
Many of the fighters sound one recurrent theme; namely, that it was poverty and lack of education that led them to take up boxing as a way to break down barriers and give them a chance to make a lot of money. Some admit to not being able to handle the notoriety of winning a fight against “the greatest.” They acknowledge many mistakes in their lives, but all of them still look fondly upon their moment in the sun fighting for the heavyweight championship against Ali.
One of them even notes that, if not for the Ali fight, no one would be interested in him during his retirement years. Certainly he would not be in a movie if he had fought ordinary mortals. It was Ali’s aura that rubbed off on them and gave them the chance of a lifetime to improve their reputations and their finances. Here are some of their comments: “fighting Ali changed my life,” “to be in the ring with him was an honor,” and “I can’t thank him enough for giving me the chance.”
The Ethics of the Fathers tells us that we should rather be the tail of lions than the heads of foxes. The Sages explain that this means it is good if we associate with great thinkers who possess sound morals rather than with the unlearned and unsavory. We naturally adapt to the environment around us, and we learn from our surroundings. If those around us are philistines, then there is a likelihood that we will be too. If, however, we are in the company of refined and ethical people, we will develop ourselves simply by being in their proximity. The lesson: we grow more in every way when we align ourselves with greatness.
Although the world of professional boxing does not represent the pinnacle of intellectuality or morality, there is in the world of professional sports the notion that there is much to learn from the masters of any sport. Facing Ali reminds us of the value of encountering greatness and the lasting positive impact it can have on our lives.