The legendary boxer leaves a legacy unmatched in sports—a charismatic champion of free speech and civil change
Muhammad Ali, one of the most influential athletes in American history and a three-time heavyweight champion who fought as well with his mouth and mind, has died, according to a note posted to his official Twitter feed. He was 74 years old.
The Associated Press, citing a statement from his family, said Ali died Friday. He was hospitalized in the Phoenix area with respiratory problems earlier this week.
His funeral is scheduled for Wednesday in his hometown of Louisville, Ky., and the city plans a memorial service Saturday, the AP reported.
Ali called himself “The Greatest,” and many agreed. Among boxers, he certainly ranked among the elite, having won the heavyweight title three times in his 21-year career. But it was his life outside the ring that inspired the strongest adjectives. He was the prettiest, the brashest, the baddest, the fastest, the loudest, the rashest.
He openly attacked American racism at a time when the nation’s black athletes and celebrities were expected to acquiesce, to thank the white power structure that gave them the opportunity to earn wealth and celebrity, and to otherwise keep their mouths shut. Ali’s mouth was seldom shut. He joined the Nation of Islam at a time when the FBI and many journalists labeled the Muslim group a dangerous cult bent on destroying America. He challenged the legitimacy of the Vietnam War and refused to enlist in the military at a time when few prominent Americans were protesting, an act of civil disobedience that led to his suspension from boxing for more than three years.
In a career full of seemingly magical feats, Ali’s greatest trick may have been his transformation—from one the nation’s most reviled characters to one of its most beloved. It was in that journey that the boxer left his marks—including welts, cuts and bruises—on American culture. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky., the son of a sign painter and a domestic worker. His paternal grandfather, Herman Clay, was a convicted murderer. His paternal great-grandfather, in all likelihood, was a slave.
The young Cassius Clay was a poor student who struggled to read the printed word, probably as a result of dyslexia, according to his wife, Lonnie Ali. He discovered his talent for boxing by accident, at the age of 12, when he told a police officer that his bicycle had been stolen. The police officer invited Cassius to join a group of young boxers, black and white, who trained at a gymnasium in downtown Louisville.
Team sports held little interest for Cassius, according to his brother, Rahman Ali, who was born Rudolph Clay. Cassius couldn’t stand the notion of wearing a helmet where his face would be obscured or being one of only 10 men on a basketball court or 22 men on a football field.
Cassius wanted nothing more than to be famous, according to his childhood friend, Owen Sitgraves of Louisville, who remembered Ali jogging to Central High School every day beside the bus that carried his classmates.
“He did it for the attention,” not just the exercise, Sitgraves said in a recent interview. In 1960, while taking time off from high school, 18-year-old Cassius Clay won the gold medal as a light heavyweight at the Olympic Games in Rome. He turned professional soon after and won his first 19 fights before earning a chance to fight for the heavyweight championship against Charles “Sonny” Liston in 1964. Liston was the most feared fighter of his time, and reporters covering the fight predicted almost unanimously that Cassius Clay would lose.
When the fight began, however, reporters saw instantly that Cassius Clay was not only bigger than Liston, he was also much faster. Cassius attacked with relentless jabs and combinations until the sixth round, when Liston quit.
“I am the greatest!” the new champion shouted into the microphone of radio reporter Howard Cosell. “I am the greatest! I am the king of the world!”
After the fight, Clay told reporters he had joined the Nation of Islam and embraced the teachings of its leader, Elijah Muhammad, as well the group’s most prominent minister, Malcolm X. At a time when civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. were leading the fight for integration, the Nation of Islam preached separatism, saying white Americans would never give black citizens true equality.
The boxer said he would abandon his so-called slave name and accept the name Muhammad Ali, which had been chosen for him by Elijah Muhammad. As Cassius Clay, the boxer had been deemed a loudmouth who didn’t know his place and didn’t comport himself with the dignity expected of sports heroes. Now, as Muhammad Ali, he was something more threatening. “I pity Clay and abhor what he represents,” wrote Jimmy Cannon, one of the most influential sportswriters of the time. “In the years of hunger during the Depression, the Communists used famous people the way the Black Muslims are exploiting Clay. This is a sect that deforms the beautiful purpose of religion.”
But many black Americans, even those who didn’t embrace the Nation of Islam, saw in Ali a man who was willing to fight outside the ring. “What white America demands in her black champions,” the Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver said, “is a brilliant, powerful body, and a dull, bestial mind—a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring.”
Muhammad Ali changed that. He became one of the most talked-about men in the world. He criticized Dr. King and other leaders of the civil-rights movement for their timidity. He traveled to Africa and the Middle East, where he was cheered not only for his boxing fame but also for his embrace of Islam. And, in 1967, he stood in opposition to the Vietnam War, refusing to be drafted. On the one hand, he claimed his objection was political—a black man ought not fight for a country that continued to treat him as a second-class citizen. On the other hand, he claimed exemption as a minister in the Nation of Islam, saying his religious beliefs precluded him from fighting.
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