What Muhammad Ali Learned From Getting in the Ring with Dyslexia

The Beatles and Muhammad AliIf you or a loved one has ever struggled with dyslexia, then you know how frustrating — and sometimes how isolating and mentally and emotionally painful it can be. Dyslexia is a common problem for many people around the world — and sometimes when it is not caught at a young age it can reap many consequences as that child grows into an adult. People who are unaware that they have it can experience depression, a low self-confidence and the belief that they are not smart. In fact, people with dyslexia are extremely smart and simply have a few challenges in the way their mind takes in information — which can be worked on through exercises and a learning program catered to their specific learning needs. There is a lot of hope for people with dyslexia, who go to to be leaders in their fields and world-changers. And, perhaps there is no more famous and inspiring example than in the great American boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Read on to learn about Muhammad Ali’s story from his start as a boxer at age 12 to his rise as an advocate for social, racial and educational injustice in his later life. You’ll be inspired by his story as he fought not only in the boxing ring but outside of the ring for children who struggle with dyslexia just like he did as a young child.

A Story of Greatness Begins

Muhammad Ali is no stranger to greatness. As a former boxing champion, Ali won the title of world heavyweight champion in 1964, 1974 and 1978 – the only boxer to be a three-time lineal champion. As he rose to fame in the 1960s and 1970s as a young American boxer, he earned numerous titles in the mass media – including Sports Personality of the Century by BBC World Radio and Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated.

Ali, whose birth name is Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., was born in Louisville, Ky., on Jan. 17, 1942. He inherited the name from his father, Marcellus Clay Sr., and both were named after the African-American abolitionist of the same name. Ali later changed his name in the 1970s when he joined the Nation of Islam. Both names point to Ali’s enduring fight for racial and social justice throughout his life – as he used his podium as a great athlete to talk about social and racial injustice in the world and became a model for activist athletes and African-Americans throughout the world. But long before his rise as a boxing heavyweight champion, Ali was a just a boy growing up in Louisville, Ky.

His first foray into boxing was instigated when he was 12 years old. He met a boxing coach by the name of Joe Martin, who also happened to be a Louisville police officer, shortly after someone stole Ali’s bicycle. As the story goes, Ali was so angry that he told Martin he was going to “whup” the person who stole Ali’s bike, and Martin quickly retorted that Ali should probably learn to box before he did that. So began a journey with Martin and later boxing coach Chuck Bodak that led to a gold medal in the Light Heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, two national Golden Gloves titles, six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and an Amateur Athletic Union National title.

A Struggle to Excel in School

But in the midst of those growing-up years, Ali really struggled in school.

“As a high school student, many of my teachers labeled me DUMB… I knew who the real dummies were. I barely graduated,” he has said. “There was no way I was going to college – I never even thought about it. I could barely read my textbooks.”

What Ali did not know at the time was that he had an undiagnosed case of dyslexia. At the time, teachers and researchers did not know what they know about dyslexia now — that children who have this condition are not, in fact, dumb, but they simply have a learning challenge that needs to be addressed in a different way than other children. With the right learning program and practice, children with dyslexia can be high achievers in the classroom, and they do go on to graduate successfully from college and to be leaders in their fields.

But Ali didn’t know that at the time, and he didn’t have confidence in his ability as a student. Knowing how great he was an athlete can make his supporters and fans and the readers of history wonder what could have been possible for Ali in school had his teachers and supporters known how to teach him and support his learning challenges. There is no doubt that Ali is intelligent — and he used that intelligence in incredible ways as he rose to fame as a boxer and social justice advocate — but at a student growing up in Kentucky the traditional path through school was not Ali’s route. He did go on to graduate high school — but barely, graduating 376 out of 391 classmates — and he carried that memory with him into later life when he became an advocate for children with dyslexia.

The Rise of a Champion

Ali won his first heavyweight champion title – a boxing match in 1964 against fellow boxer Sonny Liston that had viewers on the edges of their seats. Ali’s famous quote that he was going to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” comes from this fight in particular.

His beliefs in racial and social justice led him to convert to Islam in 1975, join the Nation of Islam, and to protest being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. That later decision came at a great cost to Ali, who was arrested for draft evasion. The U.S. courts took away Ali’s first championship title and did not box for four years while he appealed the courts decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Out of the ring, Ali kept fighting – citing his religious beliefs as the reason for protest being conscripted to fight in the U.S. military. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Ali – overturning the lower court’s decision – reinstating his boxing champion title.

A New Fight for Children with Dyslexia

Ali remembers being a child and hating to read. If only he had the resources to better manage and work through his dyslexia, reading might have become more fun. Today Ali realizes this and wants children who struggle to have more opportunities than he had growing up.

Several years ago, Ali and his wife Lonnie decided to partner with leading educational book company Scholastic on a new series of books designed to help improve literacy among readers who struggle. The Go The Distance series is aimed specifically at young African-American readers, who graduate at lower rates from high school. The themes of the book point to African-American history and are designed to garner the interest of young black readers and to make the process fun and engaging.

It’s something that Ali didn’t have access to as a young student — and he and Lonnie believe the efforts can make a difference — even if it is in the life of one young readers. If they can help a child know without a doubt that he or she is smart and that his or her dyslexia does not rule out greatness in the world — then they’ve achieved something great and made a difference. In a world that prizes “typical intelligence,” sometimes it is difficult to see alternative ways of being and to accept expanded definitions of “smart.” But Ali’s life proves that there are different ways of seeing the world and using one’s intelligence to effect change and to bring about greatness in the lives of others. He proved it as a boxing champion — displaying his athletic intelligence — and as an advocate for social and racial injustice in the world. Ali never backed down from speaking out on the issues of injustice in the world — whether it was war or racism — and he did it all without being able to read well.

And now, in the later years of his life — he is 73 years old now — he continues a legacy of greatness. Ali is committed to sharing hope and inspiration with young students who now have the opportunities to learn that he did not. He wants to see those children rise up and be great. They, too, can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee in both the athletic and educational rings of life. If you or a loved one has dyslexia, take heart in the inspiring story of Muhammad Ali. He fought against all odds and believed in himself — and that’s something that is possible for you too.

As Dyslexic's at the Adult Dyslexia Organisation, we still fight the fight

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