PHILADELPHIA– Muhammad Ali was the most iconic sports figure in the world.
The only three-time heavyweight champion in history was more recognizable than presidents and CEO’s, religious leaders and heads of state, bigger even than the Babe, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Wilt, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan and Pele, other icons in the 20th century. He viewed himself as “black and beautiful,” the face of boxing’s golden era. When he walked into a room, he commanded attention with his magnetic aura and made America sit up and listen as he fought for civil rights, black empowerment and social justice.
Ali passed into the pages of history Friday, June, 3 at the age of 74 in a Phoenix area hospital, The man who described himself as “The Greatest” lost his last fight of a glorious career, to respiratory illness. His family was at his bedside at the end. Ali had suffered for 32 years from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his legendary verbal and physical skills. A funeral service is planned in his hometown of Louisville, Ky June 10 where the casket containing Ali’s body will be carried through the streets.
The beloved Ali was more than just a great fighter. He was a colorful, controversial personality who was a social and political activist who moved mountains with his moral sensibilities and was a hero who transcended race and religion because he had the courage of his convictions.
Ali, by his own admission, was never afraid to speak his mind. “He shook up the world and the world’s a better place for it,” President Barrack Obama said. Just last December Ali released a statement criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
It was the beginning of the final chapter of an epic journey.
Born Cassius Clay in 1942, he was raised a Baptist in a lower middle class neighborhood of segregationist Louisville and had limited education. He was a gifted, dedicated athlete who was encouraged to take up by sport by a Louisville policeman who operated a boxing gym after he had his bike stolen.
Clay started boxing when he was 12 years old. He won Golden Gloves titles and a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome as a light heavyweight when he was just 18 years old. He turned professional after the games, supported at first by Louisville business owners who guaranteed him a 50-50 split in earning. Even then, he had a knack for talking up his talents– often in rhyme- and backed up his boasting after relocating to Miami to train with legendary Angelo Dundee and begin his climb up the ladder to the heavyweight championship.
It wasn’t always easy.
Clay had to constantly fight against American racism. After being refused service at a soda fountain counter, he threw his gold medal into a river. Ali eventually found guidance from the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected pacifism in the civil rights movement. Inspired by the civil rights activist Malcom X, he converted to Islam in 1963, keeping his new found faith a secret until he defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight crown the following year.
Ali prepped for one of the defining moments of his career with a litany of insults and rhymes, including the now famous prediction at the pre-fight weigh in that he would, “float like a butterfly, string like a bee.”‘ Then, he taunted Liston by calling him, “a big, ugly bear.”
“He’s (Sonny Liston) too ugly to be the world champ, Ali said. “The world champ should be pretty like me!”
“He brought psychological warfare to boxing before anyone knew what it was. Ali defeated the heavily favored Liston in a sixth-round technical knockout before a stunned Miami Beach crowd. In the ring, Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest,. I’m the king of the world.”
The new 22-year old champion soon renounced Cassius Clay as his “slave name” and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali– given to him by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. His decision created a huge political divide among Americans. Eventually, Ali dropped his black-separatist views to seek spiritual enlightenment by adopting the non-violent values of traditional Islam.
Ali successfully defended his title six times, including a rematch with Liston in Maine. “I am the astronaut of boxing,” he said. “Joe Louis and Dempsey were just jet pilots. I’m in a world of my own.” Ali simply toyed with the competition with his speed and grace. He relentlessly punished Ernie Terrell in their 1967 bout in Houston, battering him for 15 rounds while taunting, “What’s my name?” for his opponent’s insistence at calling him Clay.
Ali’s legend was spread by bombastic ABC sportscaster Howard Cosell. Their memorable TV exchanges helped propel both their careers.
Then, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, the music temporarily stopped. Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army. He said the war was against his religion and that he had no quarrel with the Vietcong. He refused to serve “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, darker people, some poor hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America and shoot them for what?” he said in an interview. “They never called me nigger.They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
“Hating people because of their color is wrong,” he said. “And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.”
Ali ‘s seminal moment came during an April appearance at an Army recruiting station in Houston, where he refused to step forward three times when his name was called. He was arrested and immediately stripped of his title, convicted in 1968 of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. Released on appeal but unable to fight or leave the country, Ali turned to the lecture circuit on college campuses, where he engaged in heated debates, pointing out the hypocrisy of denying civil rights to blacks even as they were ordered to fight for the country in battles throughout the world.
Ali’s philosophy was praised by antiwar activists and black nationalists and blasted by conservatives, including many athletes and sports writers. His appeal took four years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June 1971, reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board Ali’s stances wasn’t motivated by his religious conviction.The State of Georgia agreed to issue Ali a boxing license, which allowed him to fight and defeat Jerry Quarry. Six months later, at a sold out Madison Square Garden, he lost to Joe Frazier in a 15-round “fight of the century. It was Ali’s first loss at a pro.
That night was the start of one of boxing’s greatest rivalries. Ali and Frazier fought again in 1974 after Frazier had lost his title to George Foreman. This time, Ali won a unanimous decision, making him the leading contender for a shot at the title.
Ali took the crown from Foreman later that year in a fight in Zaire entitled, “The Rumble in the Jungle” a spectacularly staged production for which Ali moved to Africa for the summer, followed by crowds of chanting children wherever he went. Ali was so confident in his abilities he once boasted, “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad. Only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.”
A three-day music festival featuring James Brown and BB King preceded the bout. Ali delivered a masterful performance, employing a new strategy he called, “Rope-a-dope” goading Foreman into attacking him, then leaning back into the ropes in a defensive stance and letting Foreman punch himself out. Ali went on the offensive in the eighth round, knocking Foreman out.
The third fight of the compelling Ali-Frazier trilogy took place in 1975 in the “Thrilla in Manila,”: which is now regarded as one of the best boxing matches of all time. Ali was a master promoter. “It’ll be a killa, a chilla, a thrilla, when I get the Gorilla in Manila!” Ali proclaimed during the build-up, referring to Frazier as an “Uncle Tom.” He won in a technical knockout in the 15th round before a crowd of 28,000 at Philippines Arena. Ali was seemingly unbeatable until 1978, when he was beaten by a young Leon Spinks, but he quickly won the title back. Ali retired in 1978, at age 37, but returned for one more big payday. In 1980 when he fought Larry Holmes in an ill advised title bout. He lost, getting pummeled until his corner threw in the towel in the 10th round. After losing against to Trevor Berbick the following year, he retired for good with a 56-5 record with 37 knockouts. Three of his losses came long after his prime.
Three years later, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which eventually caused muscle tremors, a wobbly walk and slurred speech. “If I had won my last two fights– people would be afraid of me,” he told he New York Times in an interview. ‘They thought I was Superman. Now, they can go, ‘He’s human, like us.’ Now, I have more friends than ever.”
Ali never complained. He spent most of the next 32 years traveling the globe, making money for philanthropic causes. He met with presidents, royalty and the Pope and lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In 2005, President George W Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom given annually to a person who displays courage and conviction while striving to secure freedom for people around the world. In a little known story, Ali traveled to Iraq in 1990 to negotiate the release of 15 United States citizens taken hostage by Saddam Hussein after his invasion of Kuwait and held as human shields to prevent military bombing from the West.
“Believe me,’ Foreman said. “He didn’t die. He’s still alive. Because whenever someone tries to make a stand about anything, stand up for something they believe in.”