With the deaths of several luminaries in the entertainment world, 2016 is shaping up to be a bad year for cultural icons. Three-time world boxing champion Muhammad Ali, who died June 3 at the age of 74, is one such heavyweight, in every sense of the word. Although there have been many inspirational sports figures, few have transcended that realm to become an enduring social and cultural phenomenon that crossed generational, racial, and national boundaries. Ali first came to prominence after he dethroned reigning heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in a 1964 upset, but it was his conversion to Islam – combined with his outspoken and controversial stance on the draft and civil rights – that launched him into prominence outside of the boxing ring and cemented his place as a voice of the national conscience and advocate for the underrepresented and disenfranchised.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. He was a small, inquisitive child who had a strong sense of fairness that he displayed from an early age. Ali was reported to have had a volatile relationship with his domineering father, which was related by local cop and boxing coach Joseph Martin after taking a report about young Ali’s stolen bike. According to Martin, he was incensed about the loss of his bicycle and concerned about his father’s reaction. Martin then suggested that before he sought revenge he should learn how to box, and he began training at the age of 12.
Ali made his amateur debut in 1954, and won eight Golden Gloves titles, six at the state level and two nationally. His amateur career was capped as a gold medalist in the Light Heavyweight division at the 1960 Rome Olympic games, and he made his professional debut on October 29 of the same year. Despite his impressive 19-0 record over the next 3 1/2 years, he went into his first title fight against Sonny Liston as a cocky, belligerent underdog.
Rise and Fall
Shortly after he took the title from Liston, he rocked the sports world by announcing publicly for the first time his affiliation with the Nation of Islam and his adoption of the name Muhammad Ali. However, other boxers and the media continued to refer to him as Cassius Clay for some time; his opponents used it as an opportunity to psyche him out before fights. His humiliation of Ernie Terrell in the ring during their bout on February 6, 1967, was the last time anyone called him Cassius. After toying with Ernie and inflicting punishment on him round after round, he beat Terrell in a unanimous 15th round decision and then screamed in his face “What’s my name?” His won his final title defense against Zora Folley on March 22 of that year, and then disaster struck.
In 1966, Muhammad Ali got the letter that changed the lives of millions of young American men, but he defied the draft due to his strong religious convictions and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty of draft evasion. Due to his conviction, he was stripped of his New York boxing license and boxing titles, and he spent the next four years fighting in court instead of in the ring. His conviction was finally overturned 1971 by the U.S. Supreme Court, and he was officially given conscientious objector status.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
Once he vindicated himself legally, it was time to return to the ring. After a string of highly publicized matches and wins, he was paired with Joe Frazier for the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden in 1971, which Ali won in a unanimous decision. They fought each other twice more, including the legendary “Thrilla in Manila” bout in the Philippines in 1975, with Ali winning both fights. He would go on to rack up 31 consecutive wins before his first defeat.
He retired from the sport briefly in 1979, then announced his return to the ring the following year against Larry Holmes after undergoing a physical and being cleared to fight by the NAC. That fight, which took place on October 2, 1980, was a disaster, and it was stopped by his trainer in the 11th round; it was Ali’s only defeat by knockout, and that fight is said to have contributed to his deteriorating health. He retired a final time after a sad display in his last professional fight against Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981, which he lost after a ten-round decision; he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984.
His verbal sparring matches with Howard Cosell are the stuff of legend, and his wit, intelligence, and humor were part of an innate charm that won over even his harshest critics eventually. Sports Illustrated named Muhammad Ali the top sportsman of the 20th century, and he remains the only boxer to win the heavyweight title on three separate occasions. First in 1964, and then again after rope-a-doping George Foreman during the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle.” In Las Vegas in 1978, he won the his third title belt, this time from Leon Sphinx.
His final public appearance as an elder statesman of the sporting world occurred on July 19, 1996. Already in the advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease, he lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, and it was nothing short of inspirational. The identity of the final torch-bearer was deliberately kept secret from the public, but when Ali emerged – shaking, but stoic and standing tall – he created one of the most memorable Olympic moments of all time.
George Foreman states today that Muhammad Ali was “bigger than boxing, bigger than movie stars; he was something special,” and that to remember him solely as a boxer is an injustice. Bob Arum, who promoted 26 of his fights, stated upon news of his death his belief that Muhammad Ali had more of an influence on race relations than any other public figure of his time. The Reverend Jesse Jackson eulogized Muhammad Ali thus: “He was a champion in the ring, but, more than that, a hero beyond the ring. When champions win, people carry them off the field on their shoulders. When heroes win, people ride on their shoulders. We rode on Muhammad Ali’s shoulders.”
Muhammad Ali is indisputably one of the greatest showman and boxing champions the world has ever seen, and his influence has seeped into every facet of popular culture from politics to rap. Regardless of where you stood on war, religion, or civil rights, you knew he told the truth – always – even while he entertained and provoked you. Gentleman, Statesman, Poet, Champ: Muhammad Ali has left an indelible mark on the Sport of Kings, and on all those who were graced by his presence.