Muhammad Ali, the world’s greatest boxing legend and sports icon, passed away on Friday 3rd June at the age of 74 years. He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, USA on the 17th January 1942. A descendant of slaves, he grew up in a backdrop of racial discrimination and segregation. At the age of 12 years his bicycle was stolen, he was annoyed and wanted to sort the thief out. At that point a local police officer encouraged him to take up boxing, to be better prepared, the rest is history!
The determined young man grew up to win a Gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960, light heavyweight division, then went onto have a 21 year career with 61 professional fights, 56 wins, 37 knockouts. He became World Heavyweight Champion a record 3 times in 1964, 1974 and 1978, before retiring in 1981. He had many classic encounters Sonny Liston, George Forman and Joe Frazier, watched by millions internationally.
In 1964 after becoming the World Heavyweight Champion, he announced his conversion to Islam. He changed what he called his ‘slave name’ Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. In boxing Ali could ‘talk the talk and walk the walk’, an abundance of athletic talent, determination and self belief. He was a unique ‘showman’, possessing immense physical attributes, combined with a very sharp mind. The ability to be provocative and outlandish, in a ‘tongue in cheek’ manner. The vintage interviews of his poetry and one liners are second to none. He was able to wind up and irritate his opponents before the fights, winning the mind games. During the fights the ‘showboating’, shuffling feet and lightening reflexes were a delight to observe. The art of boxing belonged to Muhammad Ali.
He was named ‘Sportsman of the Century’ by Sports Illustrated and ‘Sports Personality of the Century’ by the BBC.
Muhammad Ali was not just an extraordinary boxer but a civil rights campaigner. He stood tall for black Americans and challenged racial discrimination and segregation that plagued the USA. When Muhammad Ali spoke the world listened, he reached out to all races and nationalities.
His early act of defiance was his refusal to be drafted into the US military to fight the war against Vietnam. He was stripped of his World Heavyweight Championship, lost his boxing licence and was sentenced for 5 years (this was overturned on appeal). Ali wasn’t able to box for nearly 4 years during his prime. Ali stood for his beliefs, a man of principle, he put his livelihood and career on the line, when he was at his peak. He suffered a negative backlash from within the USA, but it did not matter as Muhammad Ali disagreed with the war.
Shortly after retiring, Ali was diagnosed with the debilitating illness, Parkinson’s Disease. This took a great toil on Ali’s agility, speed and speech, a sadly devastating state for the world’s greatest boxer and accomplished orator. However Ali, who at his peak was the most famous man on the planet, displayed his inner strength and accepted the situation with quiet dignity for 30 years. This was his final and toughest battle.
Ali was awarded the highest American civilian awards of the ‘Presidential Citizens Medal’ and the ‘Presidential Medal of Freedom’. The ‘Muhammad Ali Centre’ in Louisville, Kentucky was also established to promote peace, social responsibility and respect.
Muhammad Ali will not only be remembered as one of the best boxers in history but also for his social justice campaigns which influenced millions of disaffected people.
The legacy he leaves behind will never be forgotten.
‘To God we belong and to Him we shall return’.