I Am Still The Greatest To be the "Greatest of All Time," boxing legend Muhammad Ali says you have to believe in yourself. It's a lesson his parents taught him and it has helped him in fighting Parkinson's disease.
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I Am Still The Greatest

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I Am Still The Greatest

I Am Still The Greatest

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Over the past four years, our series This I Believe has asked people to tell us about their personal philosophies. We've aired essays from individuals young and old, famous and unknown, men and women whose beliefs ranged from prayer to atheism, from a belief in humanity to a belief in the ridiculous.

Today marks the final This I Believe essay on our program. Tens of thousands of essays have been submitted over the years, and our series curator, Jay Allison, has been in charge of going through them all.

Jay, thousands and thousands of essays. Remind us what inspired this series in the first place.

JAY ALLISON: Well, it actually wasn't our idea. It was Edward R. Murrow's idea. And they did the series in the 1950s every day on the air, regular people and famous ones. And we decided to bring it back just about 50 years later. And their series ran for about four years on the air, and so has ours.

BLOCK: And so many essays that you've gone through. There must be, though, I would think, some personal highlights that you will remember from the past four years.

ALLISON: The problem is there are just so many. I mean, it's - you encounter people's lives in the most intimate way. I mean, here they are, all strangers, and they're all telling you what's the most important thing to them. It's utterly nontrivial and each one has been a real honor and privilege to talk to people this way and to listen to them this way.

But, I mean, I think maybe for me, a personal highlight - when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. We got an essay from an astronaut circling the Earth. And he ended up calling me on my cell phone, driving down 95, and we were talking about belief, he in space in the space station and me in my Toyota. That was a memorable moment.

BLOCK: A high point in more ways than one.

ALLISON: Really.

BLOCK: This, Jay, we should say, is not the final This I Believe essay for NPR. There are a few more essays scheduled through this month on other programs, but it is the final essay for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and it's a special one. Tell us about it.

ALLISON: Well, it's from somebody that we wanted to get from the very first day. He was on the list, at the top of the list. And finally, we've got it. It's from Muhammad Ali. And I suppose I should introduce him, but it seems like maybe he needs none. He's probably one of the best-known figures on the planet, and a hero to millions of people. He's a former heavyweight boxing champion of the world. And he's known for many things beyond his athletic life as well -his irrepressible personality, his public conversion to Islam, his resistance to the war in Vietnam, and his philanthropic and humanitarian life in this country and overseas.

He's also known for his struggle with Parkinson's disease. And this essay, he crafted with his wife and his family. And he asked his wife, Lonnie, to read it so you'll hear her voice reading the essay. And we also dropped a tape recorder off at his house in Phoenix, and he worked very hard to put his voice into the essay, too, so you'll hear it. We haven't heard Muhammad Ali's voice much lately, and you will hear him in this essay.

BLOCK: Well, let's listen. This is Muhammad Ali's essay for This I Believe.

Mr. MUHAMMAD ALI (Former Heavyweight Boxing Champion): My name is Muhammad Ali. This I believe.

Ms. LONNIE ALI: I have always believed in myself, even as a young child growing up in Louisville, Kentucky. My parents instilled a sense of pride and confidence in me, and taught me and my brother that we could be the best at anything. I must have believed them because I remember being the neighborhood marble champion, and challenging my neighborhood buddies to see who could jump the tallest hedges or run a foot race the length of the block. Of course, I knew when I made the challenge that I would win. I never even thought of losing.

In high school, I boasted weekly, if not daily, that one day I was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. As part of my boxing training, I would run down Fourth Street in downtown Louisville, darting in and out of local shops, taking just enough time to tell them I was training for the Olympics, and I was going to win a gold medal. And when I came back home, I was going to turn pro and become the world heavyweight champion in boxing.

I never thought of the possibility of failing, only of the fame and glory I was going to get when I won. I could see it. I could almost feel it. When I proclaimed that I was the greatest of all time, I believed in myself, and I still do. Throughout my entire boxing career, my belief in my abilities triumphed over the skill of an opponent. My will was stronger than their skills. What I didn't know was that my will would be tested even more when I retired.

In 1984, I was conclusively diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Since that diagnosis, my symptoms have increased, and my ability to speak in audible tones has diminished. If there was anything that would strike at the core of my confidence in myself, it would be this insidious disease. But my confidence and will to continue to live life as I choose won't be compromised.

Early in 1996, I was asked to light the cauldron at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta. Of course, my immediate answer was yes. I never even thought of having Parkinson's or what physical challenges that would present for me. When the moment came for me to walk out on the 140-foot-high scaffolding and take the torch from Janet Evans, I realized I had the eyes of the world on me. I also realized that as I held the Olympic torch high above my head, my tremors had taken over.

Just at that moment, I heard a rumble in the stadium that became a pounding roar, and then turned into a deafening applause. I was reminded of my 1960 Olympic experience in Rome, when I won the gold medal. Those 36 years between Rome and Atlanta flashed before me, and I realized that I had come full circle. Nothing in life has defeated me. I am still the greatest. This I believe.

Mr. ALI: I'm still the greatest of all time. This I believe.

ALLISON: That was Lonnie and Muhammad Ali, with his essay for This I Believe. Lonnie says that when she was working on this essay with Ali, she learned something she hadn't known about his childhood, and that is that he was a great rollerskater. Every week, he'd go to the rink and dazzle people with his moves, dancing backward through the crowd. And you can find all the essays, the 207 we've aired so far in our series, at npr.org/ThisIBelieve.

BLOCK: And Jay Allison, thanks for bringing us all of these essays and thanks, especially, for bringing us the voice of Muhammad Ali today. Great to hear him.

ALLISON: Thank you, Melissa. And thanks to all your staff for working with us.

BLOCK: Jay Allison is co-editor with Dan Gediman, John Gregory and Viki Merrick of the books "This I Believe Volumes 1 and 2: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women." And as we bring this series to a close, we're going to leave with a montage of some of the moments we've heard from This I Believe.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. EDWARD R. MURROW (Journalist): This I believe. By that name, we bring you a new series of radio broadcasts presenting the personal philosophies of thoughtful men and women in all walks of life.

Mr. JIM HAYNES: I believe in introducing people to people. If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to each other.

Mr. ANDREW SULLIVAN (Social and Political Commentator): I believe in freedom of speech, the right to offend and blaspheme, as well as the right to convert and bear witness.

Ms. BRIGHTON EARLEY (Student): I believe that being flexible keeps me going, keeps me from being ashamed of the way my family is different from other families.

Ms. CECILIA MUNOZ (Vice President, National Council of La Raza): I believe that a little outrage can take you a long way.

Mr. RICK MOODY (Writer): I believe in reading books because others dislike them or find them dangerous.

Ms. DEIRDRE SULLIVAN: I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.

Mr. VAN JONES (Founder, Green For All): I believe in making my father proud.

Ms. SARA MILES (Author, "Take This Bread"): This I believe: that by opening ourselves to strangers, we will taste God.

Mr. PENN JILLETTE (Comedian): I believe there is no God. I'm beyond atheism.

Mr. HAROLD TAW (Author, "Adventures of the Karaoke King"): I believe in feeding monkeys on my birthday.

Mr. TARAK McLAIN: I believe everyone is weird in their own way. I believe it's okay to die but not to kill.

Mr. WAYNE COYNE (Musician): I believe the real magic in the world is done by humans. And I believe normal life is extraordinary.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN (Spiritual Adviser): So I keep watching what I do to see what I actually believe.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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