He dazzled fans with his remarkable speed, ability, bravado and unmatched personality. In a career that spanned over two decades, the late Ali finished with an incredible record of 56 wins and just 5 losses. But the legacy of the self-proclaimed "Greatest of All Time" extends way beyond the ring.
At a time when eminent sporting personalities rarely stepped out of society’s established order, he was a trail-blazer. Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr in Louisville, which is located in the southern state of Louisiana, USaA. He grew up at a time when the practice of racial segration (apartheid) was prevalent in America, especially in its Deep South.
This period in American history is often referred to as the Jim Crow-era. Clay was the son of a sign painter and a house cleaner, who learned to box at the age of twelve to avenge the loss of his stolen bicycle. He soon made his name in the amateur boxing circuit and went on to win the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
Ali soon turned professional and caught the eye of many. At the tender age of 22, he won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston against overwhelming odds. Soon after the Liston fight, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali upon converting to Islam and affiliating with the Nation of Islam—an African-American religious movement that drew young, economically disadvantaged African American men from a Christian background.
“I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me,” declared the late Muhammad Ali in 1964. "Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it.” His conversion to Islam was a stark political message of racial pride against apartheid America, which was deeply associated with the Christian faith by certain sections of the African American community.
He took on the American establishment, which was predominantly White and Christian, once again in 1966, two years after he first won the world heavyweight title. Ali refused to be conscripted into the US military for the ugly and brutal war in Vietnam, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement. "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,” Ali said.
“And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, 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.... How can I shoot them, poor people? Just take me to jail." He was soon arrested and found guilty of evading conscription and stripped off his boxing titles. Finally in 1971, the US Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction, paving the way for his return to the sport.
As a result of the enforced four-year hiatus from the sport, Ali had lost his prime years as an athlete. This is what separates Ali from other sporting icons. He sacrificed his prime years to stand by principles that went beyond the sporting arena. Eminent sports figures often lack the courage of conviction beyond their immediate domain of expertise.
But Ali personified it. The New York Times columnist William Rhoden wrote: "Ali's actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete's greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?” Thus, his actions as a conscientious anti-war proponent made him an icon for not only the larger counterculture generation in America but also for the rest of world.
He fought against the US establishment and won. Although Ali lost his speed of movement during the hiatus, he returned to the ring and fought some of his most memorable bouts, including the ones against George Foreman and Joe Frazier. Ali’s first major bout after his hiatus against Frazier ended in a loss via unanimous decision—his first professional defeat. However, the ultimate highlight of Ali’s career came against George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974 — famously titled "Rumble in the Jungle". The fight itself was legendary.
The 32-year-old Ali entered the contest as an overwhelming underdog against a young and powerful Foreman, who had only recently pummeled Frazier into submission for the heavyweight title. No one gave him a chance. But Ali went on to knock out Foreman in the eighth round and regain the world heavyweight title. From being unfairly stripped off his title for refusing to join America’s unholy war in Vietnam, Ali won it back under the most dramatic manner.
Ali’s life after boxing was one of charity and peace. But the latter half of his life will always be defined by his fight against Parkinson’s disease—a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984, three years after he retired from boxing. Many doctors have claimed that the disease was not the result of absorbing too many punches but a genetic condition. But some in the medical fraternity argue otherwise.
Despite winning countless battles, Parkinson’s did beat him in the end. But in classic Ali style, he did not go down without a fight. The life of Muhammad Ali is best summed up by David Remnick, the editor of famous The New Yorker, who wrote a stirring tribute to the legend soon after his death: “Born Cassius Clay in Jim Crow-era Louisville, Kentucky, he was a skinny, quick-witted kid, the son of a sign painter and a house cleaner, who learned to box at the age of twelve to avenge the indignity of a stolen bicycle, a sixty-dollar red Schwinn that he could not bear to lose.
Eventually, Ali became arguably the most famous person on the planet, known as a supreme athlete, an uncanny blend of power, improvisation, and velocity; a master of rhyming prediction and derision; an exemplar and symbol of racial pride; a fighter, a draft resister, an acolyte, a preacher, a separatist, an integrationist, a comedian, an actor, a dancer, a butterfly, a bee, a figure of immense courage.” He truly remains the Greatest of All Time.