Float Like a Butterfly - Sting Like a Bee
Float Like a Butterfly - Sting Like a Bee
Muhammad Ali knew how to create a spectacle. In the boxing world, there is pre-Ali and post-Ali. He was audacious and he took on the boxing establishment, one sharp-witted line at a time. But Ali had more than just show to back up his show. He was disciplined and committed. And his braggadocio never covered up his heart.
The Capture of a Heart by Muhammad Ali
Before my time, Muhammad Ali had already coined some great sayings. One that has stuck with me was: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." In 1962, before a fight Ali was pitted to lose, he uttered these words, and won. This phrase became Ali’s go-to mantra and turned something that was conventionally considered a weakness (small compared to his opponent) into his strength.
By the time I was born, Ali’s star was already shooting towards being a household name. As a young girl growing up in West Tennessee, I was inexplicably captured by him. Neither of my parents liked boxing and I didn’t hang around boxers (or wrestlers, or street fighters, or even martial artsers). But I was glued to Mr. Ali’s antics and I studied his rope-a-dope technique in the great fight “The Rumble in the Jungle”. Ali was up against George Foreman, a formidable opponent who was bigger than Ali and who had a more powerful punch. So Ali devised this technique where he would lean up against the ropes and shelter his torso and face best he could, while Foreman railed punches on him. Ali looked to be losing … and yet ... the rope-a-dope allowed Ali to protect his vitals and transfer the work of absorbing the energy of Foreman’s punches to the ropes. While his opponent seemed to be winning (and while I was cringing as a 9-year-old, thinking Ali was going to D-I-E right there and then), Ali was moving fluid with the elasticity of the ropes, his body like air and passing the force of the punch straight on through to the ropes. Eventually, his opponent was exhausted and then Ali stepped up and into the center ring, and delivered his classic punches. Ali won that fight, in one of the greatest sports upsets of all time.
Years later, I came across this great verse from the Tao Te Ching:
The weak overcomes the strong.
The soft overcomes the hard.
Everybody in the world knows this,
still nobody makes use of it.
Muhammad Ali - All Boxer, All Heart
Muhammad Ali was a fierce competitor. And he did not go gentle into that good night and let establishment loud mouths have their day, oh no siree. He sirened and telegraphed his greatness to anyone who would listen. You gotta know the promoters loved him. The press covered him like a rock star. He gave good soundbites. His chutzpah almost made me blush. He stood tough in front of the lights, no shrinking violet. He was world-known. Yet, there was always something aware in him – in the midst of the bragging there was humor. He had a glint in his eye and a smirk – he transmitted that he knew he was clowning. I just knew this when I would watch him. I imagine in some way, I saw the deep reservoir of honesty in him. He did not present the image of someone “weak” or “soft”.
The glint in his eye showed the light in his heart. His honesty shone through. He was not afraid to show his vulnerability to the world … his deep sense of right and wrong was nothing more than him living his truth … all lined up right there in one man. And it is this that I connect to the ancient Tao Te Ching verse. He saw injustice and he called it out. During the Vietnam war, he refused induction into the United States Army to fight in Vietnam. He famously said:
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America, and shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
He was speaking his truth to the mainstream when the mainstream wasn’t listening – the mainstream wanted to see a great boxer box, enough already with politics, be a patriot! There was Ali, up against the ropes, having to withstand the railing punches of the United States government (and a whole helluva lot of the public) pushing back against this seemingly small thing … one man saying I don’t believe in war.
And just like that, at 25 years old, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison and stripped of his title. His great income-earning years as a boxer stopped in their tracks. It was cancel culture before cancel culture had a name. But racism was a thing and it had a name. Hatred, bigotry, wars for nothing other than the powerful were things and they had names. Muhammad Ali called it out clear.
In the South, people would call him a draft dodger. He wasn’t. He was ready to go to prison for his belief. He accepted the sentence -- he did not escape to Canada. The government was taking the stand that Ali was racially motivated to object to the war ... not that he was a conscientious objector to all wars. Hence the prison sentence. Just like his famed rope-a-dope years later, Muhammad Ali let the force of the punches go right through him and get dispersed in the net of love and faith and clarity. It was not that he tried to move beyond right and wrong … it was that the field that IS beyond right and wrong absorbed all the punches being thrown at him.
A Yogi and Muhammad Ali
And there you have it folks, a yogi’s strange and personal relationship to Mr. Muhammad Ali. He is reaching through space and time and suggesting float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Action that arises from a life of transversing your vulnerable parts is fierceness. Don’t take my word for it, practice it for yourself and find out.
In times of unrest and what seems like despair, learn to tell the difference between your own fight and stepping into the ring fighting someone else’s fight. Know your truth. Be flexible. Be resilient. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. The soft underpinning of the heart, the most vulnerable part of you, overcomes harshness and casual cruelty. Everybody knows this, deep down inside. Everyone. Stand on your own two feet and find out what it really means to be you. The whole universe is here, ready to absorb the blows.
Decades later, at the 1992 Olympics in Atlanta, I was watching the opening ceremony. I still remember Muhammad Ali lighting the torch. He was living with an advanced case of Parkinson’s Disease at the time. He was slow and unsteady, his arm shaking up a storm. There was no hiding the ravages of the disease, the loss of body control of this great athlete. He turned and took a few steps and shakily lit the torch. I sat there watching him, in awe. No need to hide the vagaries of age, disease, difficulty. You don’t have to have a tough stance to walk proud.
1. If you want to delve deeper into the story of George Foreman’s trajectory in life after that devastating loss and a brief discussion of his later in life friendship with Ali and the risks of hubris, read this article. (He also has a pretty cool twitter feed https://twitter.com/GeorgeForeman)