I can’t really put into words the tremendous sadness from reading the news that the legendary Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74 after being rushed to an Arizona hospital for respiratory problems. Just hours before, it was reported that he was placed on life support, which prompted thousands of fans to flood social media with positive messages for the champ. I don’t think there’s any article, documentary, or book that can truly summarize the impact of the life and career of Muhammad Ali. In fact, far more important people than me that can state it in far better fashion have spoken on his life, but I hope that this article can in some small way speak to the amazing journey that the Louisville native took on his way to becoming a global icon.
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he took up boxing in his hometown at the age of 12 and won numerous amateur accolades within the next few years, culminating in a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Olympic games in 1960. Late that same year, he transitioned to the pro ranks and quickly made an impact, racking up 19 consecutive wins during the next three years. Ali’s style consisted of remarkable speed, moving with gracefully footwork and landing stinging punches in a display of poetry in motion. Adding to the draw of the young charismatic Clay was his gift of gab that he used to promote his bouts. Ali later cited professional wrestling stars Gorgeous George and “Classy” Freddie Blassie as inspirations for the “promos” he used to verbally jab his opponents prior to contests. Ali’s rhymes and showmanship were as slick as his boxing skills, and in the process, he influenced the generations that followed him. The brash boxing prodigy proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and during his two decade career, he certainly made a valid argument that he could be right.
At the age of 22, still known as Cassius Clay, he defeated Sonny Liston via TKO to win the World Heavyweight championship in 1964, despite entering the bout as a major underdog. As a combination of cigar smoke and flash bulbs surrounded the ring, Clay shocked the world to win the title. Post-fight, as the ring overflowed with press and entourages, he declared, “I shook up the world!”
Cassius shook up the world outside the ring as well when he announced his membership in the nation of Islam after his title victory. Along with his conversion to a new religion, he declared his new name to be Muhammad Ali, a name that very few in the media were willing to use at the time. The newly named Ali had become involved with the NOI a few years earlier when he met social activist Malcolm X in 1962. The brilliant and often misunderstood Malcolm became a mentor to the prize fighter, and the two forged a strong friendship. The same year that Ali won the title, Malcolm X exposed the founder of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad as a fraud when it was discovered that Elijah had affairs with several of his teenage secretaries. The younger Ali still followed the NOI and decided to refuse the friendship of his former mentor. Malcolm’s courage to expose Elijah Muhammad’s corruption cost him his life as he was assassinated by members of the NOI in 1965. In the book, “Blood Brothers” that was released earlier this year, it’s well documented that Ali considered it one of the biggest regrets of his life that he didn’t get the chance to repair his friendship with Malcolm after he also realized the corruption of the NOI and converted to the traditional Sunni Islam in 1975.
However, before Ali embraced peace between people of all colors and backgrounds, he was a very controversial figure in the 60s as a result of the radical views of Elijah Muhammad. After he won the title, Ali added nine more wins to his record and was at the peak of his career, but was unjustly derailed in 1967. In the mist of the Vietnam war that divided the country, Ali was notified that he could be drafted, but he refused on the grounds that it was against his religious beliefs. In April of that year, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in Vietnam. A lengthy appeals process began, which allowed Ali the opportunity to speak out against the war at various public gatherings. The impact of his message was profound and was one of the proponents that further swayed public opinion to end the conflict. After continuous legal sparring, the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
Ali standing up for what he believed in took courage and sacrifice. Among the things that he sacrificed during his legal battles was nearly four years of the prime of his boxing career. When he refused to serve in Vietnam, he was suspended from boxing until the conviction was overturned. It’s almost unbelievable to think that as much as he accomplished inside the ring ropes, Ali could’ve accomplished even more if politics hadn’t taken the chance away from him. He returned to boxing in late 1970 and was successful in two fights before he fought the legendary “Smokin” Joe Frazier in a bout was promoted as “the fight of the century” in 1971. Frazier won the violent spectacle and the heavyweight title, while handing Ali his first professional defeat. After they both put together a series of victories, the pair fought again in 1974 and this time, Ali was victorious. Later that year, he was scheduled to fight then-champion, George Foreman. At 32 and with many ring wars on his resume, many assumed Ali would get KO’ed by his undefeated opponent, who had knocked out the granite-chinned Frazier previously. Never hesitant, he began his verbal campaign against Foreman for the bout dubbed “the rumble in the jungle” that took place in Zaire. During his preparation for the match, Ali won over the local crowds with his entertaining sparring sessions and thousands flocked to the venue to see the historic fight live, which was broadcast around the world. Using the now famous “rope-a-dope” tactic, Ali leaned against the ropes and allowed the younger challenger to unleash punches. Foreman battered him with looping hooks, prompting taunts from Ali in a game of psychological sparring. As the eighth round was winding down, Foreman was out of gas and Ali connected with a series of punches to send him crashing to the canvas.
Just as he had done nearly 15 years prior, Muhammad Ali “shook the world” to win the heavyweight championship.
After a few successful title defense, he was set to fight Joe Frazier to complete their trilogy in a bout promoted as “The Thrilla in Manila” in 1975. Similar to their previous encounters, Ali taunted Frazier and hostility developed between the two legends. When they squared off in the Philippines, the competitors exchanged punches in a contest that’s considered one of the most brutal and greatest fights in the history of the sport. After the fourteenth round, Frazier’s corner stopped the fight as he wanted to continue into the last round. Ali stood briefly to acknowledge his victory before he collapsed from exhaustion. Many prompted the champion to retire, but he kept fighting and kept winning, as he traded the belt with Leon Spinks before he won his third championship in 1978. Ali lost the title to Larry Homes in 1980 and finally retired after he fought Trevor Berbick in 1981. In an example of how respected Ali was, Larry Holmes actually cried in his dressing room following his title win because he didn’t want to cause any damage to the aging legend.
After he hung up his gloves with an impressive professional record of 56-5 spanning his twenty year career, Muhammad Ali began perhaps his toughest fight when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 42. Many suspected that the repeated head trauma from his lengthy boxing career contributed to the neurological condition. However, Ali continued to be just as much of a cultural icon in retirement as he was in the ring. He appeared on countless TV shows and events, including his role as a special referee for the main event of WrestleMania in 1985. He worked as a social activist around the world and contributed to many charities. He also worked to promote peace between countries of different political and cultural backgrounds. In one of the most iconic moments in American history, he held the torch at the 1996 Olympics, keeping the flame steady, despite the effects of Parkinson’s. The champ was honored with dozens of awards, both for his athletic accomplishments and humanitarian efforts. In 2001, a film based on his life titled “Ali,” was released with Will Smith playing the lead role, a part that he only agreed to play after he was given Ali’s endorsement. In 2002, he was given his own star on the Hollywood walk of fame for his numerous television appearances. In 2005, he was awarded with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that can be given in the United States.
In more recent years, the champion appeared frail, and it was extremely sad to see Parkinson’s take away his physical and verbal gifts. His once seamless movement became an almost continuous shake. His vocal declarations of his position as the champion of the world were quieted to a whisper. When former rival Joe Frazier passed away in 2011, it was revealed that the two had patched up their friendship and Ali attended the funeral in a wheelchair. Despite physically deterioration from the disease, it never conquered the champion’s spirit. Nearly a million Twitter followers read historic quotes from the legend and an occasional recent picture of the him that was posted during the past few years showed that the champion still had the look in his eye that he had when he was in his prime. The argument could be made that Ali defeated Parkinson’s on the score cards, as he lived with the disease for over three decades and refused to let it stop him from working to bring peace to the world. It speaks volumes as to just how special Muhammad Ali is when you take into account that people from different countries, backgrounds, races, and generations could identify with him. One of the trademarks of Ali was he always took the time to acknowledge his fans and to help build a more peaceful world.
Muhammad Ali was a champion in the ring and a champion outside of it. He’s not once in a generation or even once in a lifetime, Muhammad Ali is once in history.
Muhammad Ali is a global icon.
Muhammad Ali is a humanitarian
Quite simply, Muhammad Ali is the greatest.
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