Muhammad Ali died June 3 at the age of 74. Ali won fame as a boxer — a Golden Gloves winner, Olympic gold medalist, three-time world heavyweight champion, who retired with a record of 56 and 5. To call him a boxer, however, woefully misses the man. Ali was an icon, one of the — if not the — greatest sports figures of the 20th century. He called himself “the Greatest,” and by the time of his passing many in the world would agree.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Clay’s youth was scarred by racial discrimination. Reportedly after his bicycle was stolen he took up boxing to “whup” the thief who took it. He made his amateur debut at the age of 12, and within six years had racked up a record of 100 wins and five losses. His amateur career culminated at the 1960 Rome Olympics, at which he won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division. Ali often claimed that he threw the medal in the Ohio River after returning home and being refused service at a whites-only restaurant, although friends say that he actually lost the medal.
After the Olympics, Clay turned pro, and quickly dominated the competition, amassing within three years a record of 19-0, with 15 wins by knockout. In 1964, he stunned the boxing world by defeating world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston by a technical knockout, despite being a 7:1 underdog. Clay defeated Liston in a rematch a year later, dropping him to the canvas half way through the first round with “the phantom punch,” a swing so fast most people watching the fight never saw. After that bout, he would defend his title several more times before it was taken from him in 1967 because he refused to serve in the U.S. military and fight in Vietnam. He would be found guilty of draft evasion and sentenced to prison, although the sentence was stayed on appeal.
Famously, he refused to go overseas because “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.” He tied his pacifism to the social injustices perpetrated against African-Americans. “They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father.”
To call his position the product of a social awakening is too simple: As a black man growing up in the south he knew well the racial injustices that were institutionalized in the United States. But shortly after he defeated Liston, Clay converted to Islam, taking the name Muhammed Ali, and dismissing Cassius Clay as his “slave name.” The Islamic faith did provide the basis to claim conscientious objector status, even though the courts initially ruled that his objection was political, not religious, and therefore not allowed. In a 1971 decision, the U.S, Supreme Court ruled 8 to 0 that the courts had erred and reversed his conviction.
Ali then resumed his boxing career, reclaiming the heavyweight crown in a titanic battle against George Foreman in 1974 called the “Rumble in the Jungle” (it was held in Zaire). He fought three spectacular fights against Joe Frazier. While a smarter, faster fighter than either of those opponents (and every other boxer), Ali had been hurt by the three years he could not fight as a result of his legal problems.
He fought Frazier for the last time in 1975, defeating him in a brutal fight that he later said “was the closest thing to dying.” Despite announcing his retirement on several occasions, he continued to box until 1981, although he was increasingly a shadow of his former self. Several years after his retirement, he revealed that he had Parkinson’s disease, most likely the result of the beatings he had taken during his career.
In retirement, Ali was a shadow of the man who called himself “The Greatest,” a label that many eventually came to accept and acknowledge. In some ways it was ironic for Ali was not a great technical fighter. He had extraordinary speed, agility and reflexes: “He’d float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He was smart in the ring and out, capable of getting under an opponent’s skin and inside his head; his “rope a dope” strategy against Foreman in Zaire neutralized the bigger man’ s power and used it against him as Foreman exhausted himself flailing away while Ali rested on the ropes.
That intelligence distinguished Ali. While he made his living in the ring, to call him a boxer misunderstands him. He was a fighter, but his biggest battles were against racism, war, injustice and the readiness to rely on prejudice rather than logic and the evidence of one’s own eyes. As one writer noted, Ali redefined greatness. Being a highly skilled athlete was no longer enough. Rather, the question became, “What are you doing to liberate your people? What are you doing to ensure that your country lives up to its founding principles?”
Ali was committed to speaking truth to power. Whether it was his opposition to the Vietnam War or his readiness to go to Iraq on the eve of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to win the release of 14 hostages, he refused to accept the world as it is, and demanded that it be improved. He dismissed those who called him naive or uninformed, countering that “Impossible is just a big 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.” He may have been the “Louisville Lip” or the “Mouth that Roared,” but there was no missing the conscience behind the man.
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