This past Friday night, the world stood silent as Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest sports figure of all time, was announced dead by his family after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Ali was 74. In his death, he left a permanent mark not only on the boxing world but also on the entire world itself.
According to TIME, Ali’s interest in boxing started when his bicycle was stolen at age 12 at Columbia Gym in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The Louisville native was furious and told Policeman Joe Martin, “If I find the kid who stole my bike, I’ll whup him.” Martin suggested he learned how to box first and offered to let Ali join the boxing classes he held in the gym. Though he never got his bike back, Ali went into a ring with another 12-year-old six weeks later and dominated the fight. From that point forward, Ali jumpstarted his extraordinary career.
Six years later, at the age of 18, Ali won three bouts in the qualifying round at the Rome 1960 Olympic games. To top it all off, he defeated Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski by decision for the gold medal. Ali was becoming a force to be reckoned with.
In 1964, Ali won his first world title, beating champion Sonny Liston in a technical knockout in the seventh round. Most spectators and sportscasters did not give him a chance of beating the seasoned and skillful Liston. After his victory, he ran around the ring shouting, “I am the greatest!” and “I shook up the world!”
One year later, the two squared off again and the rest is history.
Ali knocked out Liston one minute and 44 seconds into the first round with a powerful right fist to Liston’s chin. The fight will forever be remembered thanks to photographer Neil Leifer, who shot perhaps the most iconic sports photo in history. Ali stood over the shaken up Liston after his quick victory, yelling, “Get up and fight, sucker!”
Following the historic feat, Ali joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali and married Sonji Roi-, which later ended in divorce. Also, he had many subsequent victories against tough opponents and had most of the fights in developing countries, giving the less fortunate a time in the spotlight.
Then, all hell broke loose when Ali dodged the 1967 draft, stating he had nothing against Vietnam and killing someone in a war he couldn’t believe in was against his religious beliefs. Ali was eventually arrested-with five years of prison being a possible penalty and he was stripped of his title and boxing rights.
Despite this decision, he would still stand up and fight other causes. Ali’s fighting spirit continued outside of the ring as he made the most of his time unable to box. He participated in the ongoing Civil Rights movement in the United States and met with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The two appeared in areas to fight for their fellow man despite the personal risk they took of being slain. The draft evasion matter took four years to resolve as Ali and his lawyer took the case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Ali proved to the world he wasn’t one to accept defeat in any arena of life.
In 1970, Ali was reinstated into boxing with charges still pending. After a few more victories to establish himself again as a title contender, the fighter battled it out one year later with Joe Frazier, 26-0 at the moment, in what was called “The Fight of the Century.” At Madison Square Garden in New York, fans got to witness Ali’s first loss of his professional career as he lost by a unanimous decision in 15 rounds.
Before Ali could fight again, he had to face the US Supreme Court in a case called Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. v. United States. Ali was successful in the trial as he had his 1967 conviction reversed.
In his return to the ring, he frequently referred to himself by saying, “My face is so pretty, you don’t see a scar.” This was similar to the message of the Civil Rights Movement that “black is beautiful.” Even when fighting, he didn’t forget the struggle of his fellow people.
In a subsequent rematch, Muhammad Ali would beat Joe Frazier in a 1974 showdown that took 12 rounds. With confidence riding high, Ali challenged George Foreman, who had taken the heavyweight crown from Frazier. Foreman was undefeated and feared by many.
Prior to the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali told one reporter, “I’m gonna knock that sucker out.” Safe to say the man didn’t disappoint. In Zaire, Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round. Ali perfected his strategy called the “rope-a-dope,” where he leaned against the ropes to tire out his opponent while holding his arms up in front of his head.
And if you thought Ali and Frazier were done, boy, were you wrong. Ali took on Joe Frazier for a third and final time in 1975. In the Philippines, Ali defeated Frazier in a TKO in the 14th round in “The Thrilla in Manila”.
Three years passed with several triumphs in the boxing ring and also Ali’s daughter, Laila, was born. Ali then faced a tough competitor in 1976 Olympic champion Leon Spinks. The fight was a neck-and-neck battle for 15 rounds and ultimately resulted in a split decision loss for Ali.
Of course, Muhammad Ali then avenged his loss. He became the first three-time world heavyweight champion by defeating Spinks in the rematch at the Louisiana Superdome in 1978.
One year later, Ali decided to throw in the towel. But, it didn’t last long as he came out of retirement to face “the Easton Assassin” Larry Holmes. Holmes was a tough out for Ali, and Ali’s crew stopped the fight after 10 rounds, resulting in a loss. It was an unfitting end to the inspiring athlete’s career. Shortly after the fight, Ali announced to the world he would be fighting his toughest battle in life: Parkinson’s disease.
As he battled Parkinson’s disease, Ali didn’t let his diagnosis take over the remainder of his life.
He avidly worked as a peace ambassador and humanitarian. From traveling to Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990 to seek the release of American hostages to supporting 19 charities and foundations, Ali seeked to make a difference in the world- not just in the boxing ring. Despite his aging appearance, he didn’t hide from the public eye and still fought for what he believed in.
‘The Greatest’ also made an unforgettable Olympic appearance in 1996, where he lit the flame in Atlanta. Despite his shaking arms, he showed he could overcome his impairments. With each public appearance, Ali was more and more an inspiration to millions.
He was last pictured at his annual Celebrity Fight Night with country singer Carrie Underwood. Ali seemed frail, yet still made an appearance to the event he has been a featured guest for since its third year in running.
Muhammad Ali’s legacy will live on forever. In and out of the ring, Ali would “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” While I personally never had the privilege of witnessing his boxing and excellence, I find his life inspiring to me, as I’m sure you do as well. He really did shake up the world, which will miss him dearly.