Muhammad Ali wasn't just the Greatest. Truly, he was also the most inspiring.

I know you've been hearing about Ali and reading about him since his death last week. He was controversial. He could be difficult and even mean (at least in the ring).

He was human. He was groundbreaking. And he was truly a wordsmith.

Here are 17 of the greatest things the Greatest ever said. (For an entirely different take on Ali's greatest words, check out my colleague Peter Economy's article.)

1. When he gave up everything and refused to be drafted.

In 1967, Ali was 25, and the heavyweight champion of the world, when he received his draft notice for the U.S. Army. Ali opposed the war, and refused to be inducted--which he understood would lead to him being convicted of a crime, losing his title, and facing five years in prison. Still, he went through with it.

"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."

(Ali's conviction was eventually overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court--but it took more than three years, during which he had the threat of jail hanging over his head, and he was not allowed to box.)

2. On the inherent worth of every person (whether they believe it or not).

"If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you."

3. On why you should put others' needs first.

"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."

4. On psyching out your opponent.

"I done wrestled with an alligator; I done tussled with a whale.

Handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail.

Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick.

I'm so mean I make medicine sick."

5. On the fact that he graduated at the bottom of his high school class.

"The fact is, I was never too bright in school. I ain't ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do school principals make a month?"

6. Seriously, bottom of his class?

"Wars of nations are fought to change maps. But wars of poverty are fought to map change."

(I wish I could write lines like that, and I do this for a living.)

7. On humor and truth.

"My way of joking is to tell the truth. That's the funniest joke in the world."

8. On believing in yourself before anyone else does.

"I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest."

9. On hard work.

"I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'"

10. On hyperbole (and also just because it's witty).

"I'm so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark."

11. On when your effort really matters most.

"I don't count the sit-ups. I only start counting when it starts hurting because they're the only ones that count. That's what makes you a champion."

12. On what's truly important in the ring.

"My trainer don't tell me nothing between rounds. I don't allow him to. I fight the fight. All I want to know is did I win the round. It's too late for advice."

13. On what can (and cannot) be accomplished.

"Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing."

14. On defeat.

"Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."

15. On death.

"Live everyday as if it were your last because someday you're going to be right."

16. On home life.

"At home I am a nice guy: but I don't want the world to know. Humble people, I've found, don't get very far."

17. On his name, and his roots.

"Cassius Clay is a name that white people gave to my slave master. Now that I am free, that I don't belong anymore to anyone, that I'm not a slave anymore, I gave back their white name, and I chose a beautiful African one."

Published on: Jun 6, 2016
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