FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Muhammad Ali was not only “The Greatest” in the ring, but outside of it, too, according to Todd Bowles.
Bowles, the second black head coach in Jets history, said he never got the chance to meet Ali. But the boxing legend’s legacy had a lasting effect on the person he later became.
“Great man,” Bowles said Wednesday of Ali, who died from a respiratory issue on Friday at the age of 74. “Without even talking about the boxing aspect, what he stood for, what he stood up for, what he believed in and what he went through to help most Americans get to where they are today, is unbelievable. You can’t put it into words what he did. He did what a lot of people thought they wanted to do or what a lot of people thought about doing. He just did it naturally. At a time where everybody’s praising him now, they wanted to crucify him back then. But he stood up and he stood his ground and that paved the way for a lot of people in sports and in life. Especially me.”
Ali, who battled Parkinson’s disease for 32 years, became a beloved sports figure for his bold confidence and his unapologetic social activism. And to Bowles, growing up in a three-story housing project amid drugs, gang activity and violence in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Ali epitomized self-empowerment and self-pride.
“Growing up at that time, with all the racial riots and everything else going on, for a guy to stand up for what he believed in — especially willing to go to jail and do all those things at the pinnacle of where he was in sports — and to step down like that is very rare,” Bowles said.
“There were a lot of guys back then that you looked up to as men, as opposed to sports figures, because of what they did walking away from the game as opposed to what they did in the ring,” he added, mentioning NFL Hall of Famer Jim Brown. “So as a young man growing up, that taught me a lot as far as respecting myself and understanding what I need to do growing up as a man.”