Muhammad Ali was more than just the greatest.
Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, won the light heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics at 18. Four years later, he triumphed as an underdog against Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world.
But titles were not the only reasons why Ali was revered. In his prime, Ali was quick. He zipped about the ring, endlessly in motion and often unguarded. He fought in the heavyweight division and there, Ali was lightning with a strike to match.
In the ring, his style was unorthodox. Off it, his personality was as enthralling as it was irreverent. He spoke his mind and his rhetoric was riveting. "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Rumble, young man, rumble," Ali said prior to his title bout against Sonny Liston. "The crowd did not dream when they laid down their money that they would see the total eclipse of the Sonny."
Ali's dominance came at a turbulent time where America's involvement in Vietnam was peaking and racism against African American was prevalent. His life intertwined with both.
In 1966, he famously said: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," and refused to be sent to the front lines to fight in the Vietnam War citing his religious beliefs. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
"No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again.
"The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.… If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
He was subsequently convicted for draft evasion and in the interim stripped of his title and banned from championship boxing for three and a half years.
In one of his last fights before his ban, opponent Ernie Terrell riled Ali when he insisted on calling him "Clay". Ali went on to plummet Terrell for the full 15 rounds and yelled "What's my name," in the midst of the fight.
During the ban, Ali spoke at colleges on topics like the Vietnam War and advocated African American pride and racial justice. He onced addressed a college audience: “I would like to say to those of you who think I’ve lost so much, I have gained everything. I have peace of heart; I have a clear free conscience. And I’m proud. I wake up happy. I go to bed happy. And if I go to jail, I’ll go to jail happy. Boys go to war and die for what they believe, so I don’t see why the world is so shook up over me suffering for what I believe. What’s so unusual about that?”
By 1970, the anti-war sentiments picked up, and a judge ruled that Ali was allowed to box professionally again. In 1971, Ali was scheduled to fight reigning world heavyweight champion Joe Fraizer in what was billed as "The Fight of the Century". Ali lost none of his charisma and cockiness. He taunted Joe Fraizer pre-fight, saying "Joe is going to come out smoking, but I ain't going to be joking. I'll be pecking and a-poking, pouring water on his smoking. This might shock and amaze ya, but this time I'll retire you, Frazier." But Ali's perfect record was broken by Fraizer. Shortly after that fight, his conviction was overturned. The pair's rivalry would extend further with their head-to-head ending 2-1 to Ali.
In 1974, an older Ali, having lost his prime boxing years from conviction would go on to regain the heavyweight title against George Foreman by employing "rope-a-dope" which he popularised.
In 1978, Ali, with a career record of 55–2, lost his title to 1976 Olympic champ Leon Spinks in a 15-round split decision. However, Ali would go on to win back the title in a unanimous decision shortly after. By the next year, he announced his retirement only to return on the decision. By then, Ali's career had waned and he retired for the second and last time in 1981.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease three years later but continued to use his fame to champion peace and civil rights.
Muhammad Ali was by no means perfect. He was contradictory at times to what he stood for in his words and deeds. He was full of himself but really he fought for a cause larger than himself. Ali wrote in his autobiography: "My fighting had a purpose. I had to be successful in order to get people to listen to the things I had to say." And said he did. He was anti-establishment in a time of bigotry and conflict. He fought for civil rights and peace. Ali has passed on but his legacy has transcended sport. Besides leaving a mark on his many sparring partners, he left an indelible mark on society.