“The Greatest” Heavyweight Boxer Muhamad Ali
Often referred to as “The Greatest” heavyweight boxer of all time, Muhamad Ali had a “unique fighting style… and was quick and graceful on his feet” which propelled him into popularity (Group 2016). Yet this athlete was an outspoken activist about several issues that showered him in controversy that led to a fearlessness in life and in the ring, all while supporting world peace. Growing up in Kentucky, Ali experienced racism in every aspect of his life and in fact, this racism prompted him to pursue a career where he could take out his aggression and one where he could stand up for social injustices. He wanted to show people that color didn’t matter. In 1954, at the age of twelve, Ali’s bike was stolen so he reported the theft to police officer, Joe Martin who took Ali under his wing and taught him to fight (Editors 2009).
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky yet he believed this was a white name, one he was not proud to bear and in 1964 Ali announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name to reflect that of Elijah Muhammad, leader of Islam. Ali had a work ethic apparent in his early years; every morning he would race the bus to school (with varying degrees of success), and that work ethic translated into the classroom and into his fights. One way Ali influenced both the social and political landscape of America was being the “first fighter to capture the heavyweight title three times” (Editors 2009) which proved his notion that color didn’t matter. Not to mention, by the age of 18 Ali had already won two Golden Gloves and boasted a record of 100-8, all the while traveling to Rome, competing in the 1960 Summer Olympics, and winning gold in the light heavyweight division. In his first opportunity at winning a title, Ali took home a victory over Sonny Liston and his infamous “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” was born (Joseph 2016). Ali’s decision to join the black separatist movement was very controversial and surprised fans. In 1967 Ali was scheduled to be inducted into the draft to fight in the Vietnam war yet he cited his religious beliefs and refused to serve in a war he didn’t support (Editors 2009).
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This blatant objection and criticism of the government led to Ali’s arrest and he was stripped of his title and banned from the sport for three years. This however, only heightened his popularity because of his political defiance in a now unpopular war (Joseph 2016) and in 1970, the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s conviction. Ali inspired others to challenge the government by being a civil rights advocate and his “bragging in the ring… to his criticism of the war/government” (Group 2016). Despite this unrelenting nature, Ali met his first loss in the “Fight of the Century” to “smoking” Joe Frazier in 1971 after his three years of being banned, and finally got the rematch he wanted in 1974, beating Frazier in an eight-round knockout and again in 1975 with the “Thrilla in Manila” where Frazier could not answer in the final round (Editors 2009). One other interesting thing to note is that Ali, in 1990, met with Saddam Hussein to try and negotiate the release of American hostages, surely no small feat, but also served as a Messenger of Peace for the U.N. In 1999, Ali was voted “Sporting Personality of the Century” and was dubbed “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated, and in 2005, eleven years before his death due to Parkinson’s, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, all major accolades to his already decorated career as a boxer. Also in 2005, he opened a Muhammad Ali Center “focused on peace and social responsibility” (Editors 2009).
No matter if you agree with Ali being the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, Ali pushed racial boundaries in and outside the ring, breaking racial barriers, crushing societal stigmas around black athletes. Ali brought a fiery passion attributed to the racism he experienced as a child, he closed the gap between sports, politics, and activism while excelling in sports through his radical forms of activism. His open protest against the Vietnam War created a horrific image that connected race and war in a way that truly affected the world. Boasting an impressive career record of 56-5 with 37 KOs, Ali became “worshipped as the pinnacle of athletic achievement to Olympic sprinters like John Carlos and Tommie Smith” and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Joseph 2016). Without Ali’s devotion to fighting racial inequality, it can be said that racism in the athletic world would be prevalent today but Ali’s accomplishments go to show race doesn’t really matter. The once “dangerous” anti-war activist transformed America’s political and societal landscape and became a greatly respected athlete and civil rights figure.