I woke up very early in the morning to find my television still on and tuned to SportsCenter. I pulled up my iPad sitting on the floor next to my couch and saw the news update that Muhammad Ali had died. I sat up immediately and listened to the reactions and coverage of his passing. I listened for a long time as story after story came in about what Ali had done for the black community, the boxing world, the athletic world at large, and the United States in one of the more tumultuous times in the nation’s history. I heard all these stories and soaked them all in, knowing many of his stories but not knowing the full weight of his time and tales.
I knew Ali as one of the most controversial public figures in the middle of the 20th century and as one of the greatest athletes in any sport. Both of those descriptions are true, and ultimately, Ali will mean different things to people of different walks of life. My father was six years old when he upset Sonny Liston in 1964, and my father had met my mother only a few months before Ali fought his last bout in Nassau in the Bahamas in December 1981. I wasn’t alive or fully aware enough to see any of his most famous moments. Yet even I know about the myths and stories of Ali. He must’ve done something incredible for someone who wasn’t born until thirteen years after his last fight to know and respect his accomplishments.
His life was a result of the racism and poverty he saw and endured in his formative years in Louisville, Kentucky. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in 1942, he grew up in the Jim Crowe south, facing direct racism and adversity from his youth. One specific incident led him to the sport where he would make his name. At twelve years old, young Cassius Clay’s bike was stolen at the annual convention of the Louisville Service Club. Clay approached Joe Elsby Martin, a police officer and local boxing coach. Clay fumed, saying that he wanted to “whup the thief”. Martin responded by asking “Do you know how to fight?” Clay answered “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin responded by saying “Why don’t you learn something about fighting before you go and make any hasty challenges.” Martin was Clay’s first boxing coach, and was with him through his career as an amateur boxer, culminating in his gold medal performance at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. He was celebrated as the greatest young boxer of the day in Times Square before returning home to a heroes welcome that masked a still virulently racist culture in Louisville. He was fueled by a desire to make changes to a world he saw as flawed.
Clay turned pro after his Olympic victory. He won his first 19 bouts before taking his first shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World. He met Sonny Liston for the title in the ring in Miami Beach, Fla., and was a heavy underdog to the most intimidating force in the sport back then. Clay fearlessly promoted the fight and his skills. Most boxers would let their managers and crew do the talking for them. And while Clay’s crew could do the talking; Bundini Brown came up with the famous phrase “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”, Clay went vocal and talked trash to Liston. He declared himself to the task. He fought Liston boldly, surviving a round where he could hardly see because of irritation in his eye, and won by technical knockout when Liston failed to answer the bell in the seventh round. After the fight, Clay had his famous claim “I shook up the world!!!” This put Clay on the map, and he was just getting started.
The controversies began for Clay when he announced his conversion to Islam and affiliation with the Nation of Islam. He changed his name from, as he termed it, his “slave name” of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. After a rematch with Liston in Lewiston, Maine, Ali became more vocal about his opponents, calling Floyd Patterson an “Uncle Tom” before beating him in a twelve round technical knockout. He remained this vocal for the remainder of his career. He then topped himself in terms of controversy when he announced his status as a “Concientious Objector” to the Vietnam War due to his religious convictions. He was convicted as a draft dodger and was suspended from boxing in 1967. This is the point where Ali became a divisive figure in the United States. He was an incredible athlete, but was viewed as unpatriotic by millions of Americans. Ultimately, I understand why he felt that way, but I can’t help but think that there had to have been a better way to express that sentiment. He loudly proclaimed that “The Viet Cong ain’t ever called me no n!*#^~>.” He acted on his experience and refused to fight for a country he viewed as hypocritical and not what he wanted to put his energy towards. I understand his rationale behind his actions, and must respect the reasons he refused to fight. I don’t approve of what he did to express that sentiment, but I will respect his reasons.
Ali’s boxing suspension was lifted in 1970. Ali won a few fights before signing on to face the most fearsome fighter of the time, Joe Frazier. The fight went the full 15 rounds and generated a buzz in Madison Square Garden that has rarely been felt at a sporting event. The “Fight of the Century” on March 8, 1971 was a unanimous decision that went to Frazier and Ali was viewed as being done. He lost to Ken Norton in 1973, and while recovering from a broken jaw from that fight, he plotted his return to the Heavyweight Championship. Ali got another shot at Frazier and took him down in a twelve round unanimous decision in Madison Square Garden. George Foreman who had also defeated Joe Fraizer, with Howard Cosell along to provide the most famous call in boxing history and maybe the most famous call in all of sports, was the man holding the title that Ali wanted. Ali wanted to fight Foreman, and got his wish.
The two met in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), for the “Rumble in the Jungle”. Foreman hit Ali with punches that “could bring down the walls of a city.” Ali responded by asking Foreman “Is that all you’ve got George?” George Foreman didn’t have anymore. Ali won, created the Rope-a-Dope, and reclaimed the Heavyweight Championship of the World. There was still one last great triumph in Ali’s boxing career. Ali and Frazier got together for the “Thrilla in Manilla”, the third and final round of the most brutal personal rivalry in the middle of the twentieth century. Ali took every punch, using the “Rope-a-dope” style of fighting utilized against Foreman. He walked away triumphant, winning when Frazier failed to answer the bell in the 15th and final round. It was his final triumph in the ring. Ali had a few misplaced fights at the end of his career, including three losses in his last four fights. After he lost to Trevor Berbick in 1981, he finally retired with a record of 56 wins, 5 losses, 37 wins by knockout, and only one loss by knockout. Ali broke so many standards and normal ideas about how to box, and was the greatest boxer of all time.
After stepping outside the ropes, Ali hit serious health concerns and transcended the sports world. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1984, and lost his famous ability to talk and proclaim his skill and influence. That’s how I came to know Ali originally, through his words. I know he’s the greatest boxer, but I’ve always loved listening to Muhammad Ali’s quotes and thoughts. Here are a few of his greatest quotes for your appreciation.
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew I was. I figured that if I said it enough, I would convince the world that I was really the greatest.”
“Impossible is just a word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
When talking to the press about the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali said, “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.”
“The fight is won or lost far away from the witnesses, behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road; long before I dance under those lights.”
His words are touching. And these are only a few of his quotes. I came to know him as a man with a gift of gab, not with a gift of jab. Parkinson’s made his life harder and harder to lead for many years. He continued to make public appearances though. He even had two more famous moments in the spotlight. One was when he lit the torch for the opening of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The second was when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by George W. Bush, the highest award that can be given to an American citizen. The rest of his life, he was a symbol of his time and a person who many made it a mission to meet, because he had inspired them so much for so many years.
Muhammad Ali died this morning on the East Coast, last night in Scottsdale, his home for the last years of his life. His legacy is complex, but full and incredible. He was completely human, being married four times, having multiple affairs, putting himself in more dangerous positions to get hurt, and probably being too arrogant at times. But Ali was such a legendary athlete and such an important figure that he almost transcends the notion of being a regular human being. In terms of influential athletes in the twentieth century, Ali is up with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, and Michael Jordan as the greatest on that list. His influence will be felt for years after his death.
May God welcome him with open arms.