It may be 30 years since he last stepped foot in the ring, but he’s still the greatest. As the world celebrates Muhammad Ali’s 70th Birthday, it’s clear that few if any people are as widely loved and admired as the former heavyweight champion. Why? Is it the boxing skills that bedazzled opponents and audiences alike? The Showmanship and sense of humour which would see him predict the rounds his opponents would go down and make a game of one of the world’s most dangerous sports? Maybe it was his humanitarian efforts and social commentary?
All the above attributes undoubtedly played their role but it was Ali’s beliefs and fighting spirit which made him a true global icon.
Ali, born Cassius Clay in 1942 grew up in Louisville Kentucky. The 40’s were difficult times for Americans in general following World War two, let alone African Americans. Throughout his early years, Muhammad Ali would be continuously affected by the racist climate which had seen black people barred from “White Only” restrooms, water fountains and restaurants amongst other establishments.
Not even winning a Gold Medal for his country at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, would change the situation. Upon returning to US, proud of his accomplishments he was refused service at an “whites only” restaurant in his home town and later attacked by a racist motorcycle gang. Tired of the constant discrimination, Muhammad Ali tossed his Olympic Gold Medal in the Ohio River as a sign of his disillusion with America.
In 1964, after he “shook up the world” ; destroying the fearsome and undefeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship, Ali announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam alongside the likes of Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad.
He renounced his last name “Clay” as a symbol of his ancestor’s enslavement as is common in the Nation and became Cassius X. Shortly afterwards, Elijah Muhammad would give him the name; Muhammad Ali. Muhammad means “One Worthy of Praise” and Ali was a cousin and loyal follower of the Prophet Muhammad(Peace be upon him).
He had joined a movement which unashamedly spoke out against the injustice of society and implored black people to see themselves as equal and become self-sufficient.
These changes were too much for many who had been accustomed to white supremacy, including those in the mobbed up and corrupt boxing world. Before Muhammad Ali, Black Boxing Champions were generally quiet and subservient.
Take Joe Louis for example. He was given a set of rules by his management which included “never be photographed with a white woman, never go to a club by you and never speak unless spoken to”. There would be no such silencing of Muhammad Ali though.
Angry at his violation of the status quo, many media outlets including the New York Times refused to refer to Ali by his new name and for several years would refer to him as Cassius Clay.
Unfazed, Muhammad Ali blunted stated;
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be; I’m free to be what I want”.
While Malcolm X is generally credited with Ali’s involvement with the Nation of Islam and subsequent development into one of the most powerful voices for the African American community, few acknowledge the profound effect the Honourable Elijah Muhammad had on him except the man himself;
“The greatest moment of my life is when I met Elijah Muhammad. The preacher of freedom for black people.” He once told David Frost during an interview.
Over the next few years, Ali would make light work of his championship competitors and continue to speak out against the ongoing racism leveled against black people. His name, belief’s and personality had given him an international profile unlike any Sportsman before him and he would soon be known as the most famous man in the world.
His life defining came in 1966 when he refused to serve the American Army in their war against Vietnam, labeling himself a “conscientious objector” ;
“”My conscious won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. 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 and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail.”
As a result, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight championship, his Boxing License and his Visa to prevent him from boxing abroad. He was initially convicted of Draft Evasion and sentenced to five years in Prison but was able to stay out of Prison thanks to the lengthy appeal process. He did however lose three years of what would have been his peak as well as millions of dollars in earnings.
In an article for US magazine Sports Illustrated, famed Journalist and Author Jack Olsen(1925-2002) explains how the American Public became increasingly hostile toward Ali;
“The governor of Illinois found Clay ‘disgusting,’ and the governor of Maine said Clay ‘should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American.’ An American Legion post in Miami asked people to ‘join in condemnation of this unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic individual.’ The Chicago Tribune waged a choleric campaign against holding the next Clay fight in Chicago…. The noise became a din, the drumbeats of a holy war. TV and radio commentators, little old ladies … bookmakers, and parish priests, armchair strategists at the Pentagon and politicians all over the place joined in a crescendo of get-Cassius clamor.”
Nonetheless he permanently endeared himself to people of African descent the world over and inspired numerous people to stand up against racism within the US, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos who famously gave the black power salute on the Winner podium at the 1968 Olympics.
Ali relied upon Public appearances and speeches at Universities to provide for his family during this difficult time. Had he of accepted the Draft, chances are he would have spent most of his time entertaining the American soldiers rather than joining them but Ali refused to support the War in any shape or form;
“I’m giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I’ll come out stronger than ever.”
Eventually, the anti-war campaign gathered steam and more people came to admire and respect Muhammad Ali for staying true to his belief’s including Martin Luther King;
” No matter what you think of Muhammad Ali’s religion, you certainly have to admire his courage” he told his followers during a sermon.
In 1970, the Supreme Court reversed his conviction and Ali would rebuild his boxing career. He reclaimed the heavyweight title twice most famously during the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, becoming the first man to the title three times in the process.As a result of his stand, he had become much more than just a great boxer. He had become a great champion of principles and humanity.Outside of the ring he continued to educate, inspire and entertain through numerous speeches and interviews across the globe.
Having been diagnosed with the currently incurable Parkinsons disease in 1984, Ali has spent more than 25 years battling against the Brain Injury which has slowed his movement and severely slurred his speech.
However, this hasnt stopped him from remaining active positively affecting the lives of millions. He has devoted himself to humaniteran causes, lending his name to poverty and hunger relief programs, supporting various educational initiatives and working to encourage people to respect one another. According the Muhammad Ali centre website, Ali travels on average “upwards of 200 days a year” and has provided “an estimated 22million meals to feed the hungry”.
Never before or since, has the world came across an individual with such an abundant mix of Character, Charisma and talent. This is why he remains one of the worlds most beloved figures. While the constant punches may have taken their toll on his physical form, the fiery spirit which made him the icon he is today lives on. He may be 70 years old but Muhammad Ali is still the greatest.