From his birth as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in the segregated South on January 17, 1942, to his death on June 3, 2016, boxing legend Muhammad Ali spent his whole life fighting. And whether against his opponents in the ring, racial and religious prejudice, or the United States government, to name just a few, he usually won. His record of 56–5 is among boxing’s best, and his witticisms are without a doubt its greatest. Muhammad Ali’s passing leaves a void in the sports world that will perhaps never be filled, and a legacy that transcends it, having made an indelible mark on history, social justice, politics, religion and popular culture.
Clay’s first steps on the road to sports immortality were taken when, in 1954 at the age of 12, he was overheard by Louisville police officer Joe E. Martin saying that he wanted to beat up a thief who had stolen his bicycle. Martin suggested that Clay would need to learn how to box first and offered to train him. Over the next six years, Martin’s admiration of the young fighter’s skill, determination and work ethic would grow, and so would Clay’s collection of amateur titles as he boxed his way to the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Returning home from the games with the gold medal, Clay was greeted with much fanfare, but he also encountered the racial prejudice with which he was all too familiar when he was denied service in a Kentucky restaurant. The contrast was not lost on Clay and would only serve to deepen the ideas and feelings that would later influence some of the most pivotal decisions of his life.
But Clay was on the rise. In October 1960, he won his first professional fight, and by 1964 had carried an impressive 19–0 record (15 by way of knockout)—and a reputation for brashness and agility both in and out of the ring—through the heavyweight circuit and all the way to the title, which on February 25, at age 22, he won from Sonny Liston in a six-round decision by technical knockout. After the fight, Ali declared, “I’m the greatest! I shook up the world!” He shook it even more the following day when he announced his own conversion to Islam, and again a month later when he told the press that he had chosen a new name—Muhammad Ali—to replace his “slave name.”
Ali would spend the next few years boldly defending both his boxing title and his beliefs, facing perhaps his greatest challenge to date when in 1966 he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Ali responded by declaring himself a conscientious objector, saying famously “I ain’t got not quarrel with them Vietcong,” and when his name was called at his induction ceremony, he refused to step forward and was promptly arrested. Essentially banned from fighting in the United States, for the remainder of the year, Ali continued to fight abroad, but in 1967 his passport was revoked and he was stripped of both his title (which was given to Joe Frazier) and his boxing license. Exiled from boxing, Ali supported himself by doing the other thing he did best—talking. At a time when opposition to the Vietnam War was growing, Ali’s opinions on the subject and his refusal to serve in the military made him popular in the counterculture movement and he was able to support himself through a speaking tour of colleges and universities around the country.
In 1971, the Supreme Court finally reversed Ali’s conviction and his boxing license was reinstated. Over the next few years Ali would have some of the greatest fights of his career, and arguably the most famous in the history of the sport. On March 8, 1971, Ali stepped into the ring at Madison Square Gardens for the “Fight of the Century” against Joe Frazier. Ali lost the fight in a 15-round decision (his first professional loss), but after defeating 12 of his next 13 opponents, he and Frazier met again, and this time Ali won, earning himself a chance to regain the title, then held by George Foreman. That fight, called "The Rumble in the Jungle,” was held in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974. Ali emerged victorious after knocking out Foreman, whom he had worn out in the African heat with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, to become, once more, the heavyweight champion of the world.
In 1975, Ali again faced and defeated Frazier, in the “Thrilla in Manilla,” but after several more victories, in February 1978 Muhammad Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks. Seven months later Ali defeated Spinks to regain the title for a record-setting third time, but after he lost it to Larry Holmes in 1980 and was defeated by Trevor Berbick in 1981, he finally decided, at age 39, to hang up his gloves.
In 1984, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition that over the years would slow the fleet-footed fighter considerably and cause his once-powerful hands to weaken and shake. Yet even as Ali’s condition worsened, what it could never seem to dampen was his fighting spirit, his convictions or his wit. Despite his illness, for the remainder of his life, Ali tirelessly devoted himself to charitable endeavors, including the Special Olympics and the Make-a-Wish Foundation, as well as the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Research Center. He also made numerous goodwill missions to African countries and, never one to shy from controversy, even pariah nations such as North Korea, Cuba and Iraq. He received countless awards for his work beyond the ring, and earned numerous honors for his achievements inside of it, including, surely, the title that he gave himself—“The Greatest.”
After his long battle with Parkinson's disease, the boxing great died on June 3, 2016 in Phoenix, after being treated for respiratory complications.
Muhammad Ali once asked the question, “Will they ever have another fighter who writes poems, predicts rounds, beats everybody, makes people laugh, makes people cry and is as tall and extra pretty as me?” In the days and decades to come, as the world looks back and takes measure of his impact, the answer to that question will almost certainly be a unanimous “No.”