Born in Kentucky in the age of Jim Crow, a young man named Cassius Clay had little reason to believe that one day the whole world would know his name. But that’s how it would be for Muhammad Ali, the greatest fighter of all time.
What can be said about Muhammad Ali that he hasn’t already said himself? He was the greatest, he had imagination, he was free to be what he wanted to be, and no man’s hands could hit what their eyes couldn’t see. He knew where he was going and he knew the truth: he shook up the world while he was still just a youth.
His fights against Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, George Foreman and Joe Frazier have become some of the most iconic bouts boxing history, but Ali’s legacy far surpassed what happened in the ring. Muhammad’s actions off the canvas had as much of an impact on the 20th century as any of his movements inside the ropes ever did.
Cassius Clay was one of the first major media personalities to make a public conversion to Islam. For many Americans, “Muhammad Ali” was their introduction to the muslim world. While boxing is often filled with spectacles, Ali’s conversion was never for show. He remained faithful to his religion up until his death, supporting many Islamic institutions across the country.
He was a man defined by his times as he was by any of his own actions. His opposition to the war in Vietnam and refusal to fight for his country hurt his career, but gained him the respect of a brokenhearted generation that watched every night as their brothers came home in flag-covered boxes. He stood by his beliefs and the country punished him for it, sentencing him to five years in prison, yet he did not turn his back on the American people.
His relationship with Jesse Jackson helped shape the Democratic Party. Through his work with Operation Breadbasket
in the late 60’s and early 70s, he helped improve the conditions of black communities across America.
In 1980, Ali came together with Jimmy Carter and the State Department to drum up support for a US boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Though Carter’s plan was doomed from the beginning, Ali did not back down. For voicing his opinion, the fighter was called a “puppet” and a “stooge”, but he stood by his beliefs.
Even his death was fraught with controversy. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. It’s widely rumored that the degenerative illness may have been due to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), possibly resulting from injuries sustained while boxing. With recent studies indicating a clear link between CTE and sport-related concussion, Ali’s case seems especially relevant.
While there’s no definitive proof that the two were linked and it’s impossible to truly know what caused his condition, that hasn’t stop people from speculating. Whatever the case, Ali was instrumental in raising funds, building support and spreading awareness about the disease. His work continues to pay off at the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center
in Phoenix, AZ.
Throughout his career, Ali faced many opponents. His battles were long and public, but he came out universally acknowledged as one of the greatest athletes ever to walk the earth. Few men have reached his level, and few men ever will.
I’m sure that history shows, and in time we will see, there will be no other quite like Muhammad Ali.
[Photo by Walter Iooss, via Cliff on Flickr