Muhammad Ali was in Phoenix, Ariz., just one and a half hours from me in Tucson, when he left this world on June 3, 2016. As close as he was in body to my hometown at that moment, he felt even closer in spirit somehow – probably because, like thousands of others mourning his passing, I was moved to reflect on everything he did, withstood, and stood up for during his remarkable life. In doing so, I felt inspired to develop this Muhammad Ali art project to help teachers and students do the same.
Muhammad Ali was a heavyweight boxer – “The Greatest” in his not-so-humble opinion – who also bucked the system as a champion of civil rights, a war protestor, and a defender of religious freedom. He became famous for his fights in the ring, against authority, and against Parkinson’s Disease, which he bravely battled for 32 years.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942 in Kentucky, he started boxing at 12, winning Golden Gloves titles and a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He turned pro after that and earned the nickname “the Louisville Lip” for his tendency to talk up his own talents (often in verse). It was during the lead-up to a match in 1964, against Sonny Liston, that Ali uttered his promise to “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and just after his stunning victory when he famously proclaimed, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m king of the world.”
As successful as he was in the boxing world, Ali faced far more formidable forces in the world at large, like racism. After he was refused service at a soda fountain counter, he said, he threw his gold medal in a river. Ultimately, he joined the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that rejected pacifism and encouraged racial separation. He renounced what he called his “slave name” and became known as Muhammad Ali.
That didn’t sit well with all his fans, and when, in 1967, he refused to serve in the Vietnam War based on his religious beliefs, his actions and words again divided the country. He was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to five years in prison. What followed were years on the lecture circuit, where he continued to decry inequality, a long legal battle he would eventually win, and finally, a return to boxing. He suffered his first defeat around that time, in what was known as “the fight of the century,” against Joe Frazier, but won back the heavyweight title before retiring in 1979 at age 37.
Just two years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. He acknowledged that he was no longer “Superman,” but “human” with problems. And then he began the next chapter of his life, assisting other humans: He sought the release of hostages in Lebanon and Iraq and spent years pushing philanthropic causes and promoting tolerance and respect.
Even as his health failed and he could barely speak, Ali was a paragon of inner strength. “When I proclaimed I was the greatest of all time, I believed in myself,” he wrote in an essay, “and I still do.”
As I took in the news of his death, I thought that was just one of many messages from Ali that would resonate with students. He was a champion because he believed himself to be; what might they become if they believed as strongly in themselves?
As teachers, we can help spur that conversation – and honor Ali’s legacy. If you teach a unit on sports, perseverance, Black History Month, or biography, a Muhammad Ali art project dovetails perfectly. To go along with instruction on his many powerful words, you’ll need a picture (just one is worth at least 1,000, right?), and I’ve created just the right visual component.
Muhammad Ali Art Project: Collaboration Poster
My Muhammad Ali Collaboration Portrait Poster can serve as an engaging hook or a wrap-up to your lesson on “The Greatest.” As with the collaborative posters I’ve offered featuring other historical greats (see them here), students color individual pieces of a larger, iconic image and then assemble them into a mosaic. The result is a beautiful Muhammad Ali art project highlighting another of Ali’s famous phrases: “The man who has no imagination has no wings.”
I’ve provided two variations of this poster in this resource so that teachers who work with older students can enjoy this as much as teachers who work with younger students. The variation for older students requires that they color in the individual pieces in the smaller lines that I provide.
Since the little spaces in poster option #1 are too small for very young children, I have included poster option #2. This poster has the students color or paint right over the design to create a colorful and vibrant background. You can read more details about how I do this option in this Robert Frost blog post (near the end).
I did a Facebook live event showing how I put together the second variation of this poster once it’s painted. You can check it out HERE or by clicking on the image below.
I hope that this activity inspires your students to imagine great things for themselves, too.
I would love to see your students’ work if you decide to create any of my projects with them. Feel free to tag me (@artwithjennyk or #artwithjennyk) on social media so I can see what they make! You’ll find me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram!
Thank you for reading and for all you do!