Matt Lauer was 7 years old when Muhammad Ali electrified the boxing world by winning the heavyweight championship.
But it was outside the ring that Ali made a lasting impression on the TODAY anchor.
“This is perhaps the most famous man in the world, and he could easily still make it all about himself,’’ Matt said. “And yet, he chooses to live his life in a way that makes it all about others.”
In 1967, Matt was 10 years old when Ali refused to join the armed forces because of his opposition to the Vietnam War and was stripped of his heavyweight title. Matt’s father was a World War II veteran who fought in the Philippines.
“I remember (my dad) saying, ‘Matt, I don't agree with what he's doing,’’’ Matt said Thursday as part of TODAY's #InspiredBy series, where anchors and fans on social media share their life's inspirations. “And it was devastating to me. I mean, my dad was basically telling me he didn't agree with what my idol was doing. But he paused just a second, and I'll never forget it. Then he looked at me and he said, ‘But I will tell you, I admire him for standing up for what he believes in.’
“It was like double light bulbs went on,’’ Matt said. “I learned a lot about my dad at that moment, that this World War II veteran could see things in layers, that he could disagree with Ali's actions, but admire him as a man. Then I really got the bug and started following Muhammad Ali, because he now had the stamp of approval from the guy that meant the most to me in my life.”
During his career and after his retirement from boxing in 1981, Ali traveled around the world to support help those less fortunate.
“The fact of the matter is that when Muhammad Ali became the most famous man in the world, he didn't just treat it as being a celebrity,’’ Matt said. “He felt a responsibility.
“He went around the world, and he put that gift to great use. He helped people who were hungry and poor and oppressed and illiterate, and he gave them hope and inspiration. He stood for something. His fights are legendary, but I think it's even more inspiring to watch what he did with his life outside the ring.”
Matt recalled Ali lighting the Olympic torch at the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 games in Atlanta. Matt was in the stadium that night.
“Onto the platform, out of the shadows comes Muhammad Ali, and he's carrying the torch, but he's shaking,’’ Matt said. “Imagine the message it sent to people all around the world that the once heavyweight champion of the world, the greatest, was comfortable standing there in that world spotlight, trembling, holding that torch, but sending a message that ‘I am still powerful.’ I wept in that stadium.’’
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984 and has been a tireless advocate for the cause since then.
“When you're used to being seen in that incredibly physical state, that chiseled body, and next thing you know you have something like Parkinson's disease, it would be very easy to run from the spotlight and say, ‘I don't want to be seen this way,’’’ Matt said. “This is not the way I want to be remembered."
In 1997, Ali, philanthropist Jimmy Walker and Dr. Abraham Lieberman established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and Movement Disorders Clinic in Phoenix to combine clinical and research expertise with community support and emotional care for those suffering from Parkinson’s and their families. At 71 years old, Ali continues to inspire just as he did as the cocky young fighter known as Cassius Clay.
“How many people do you know in your life who began to inspire people when they were 18, 19 years old and have continued to inspire millions of people all around the world past their 70th birthday?’’ Matt said. “Muhammad Ali once said, ‘Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare.’ Muhammad Ali has dared us to follow his lead, and make our lives about others.”
Read about who TODAY anchors are #InspiredBy — including Savannah Guthrie's Uncle Pierce and Willie Geist's friend, a Marine who turned his injury into inspiration, here.