By Dr. Abdul Ruff
Muhammad Ali, the silver-tongued boxer and civil rights champion who famously proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and then spent a lifetime living up to the billing, is no more after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Muhammad Ali, revered as one of the greatest boxers of all time, has died at the age of 74.
Muhammad had suffered for three decades from Parkinson’s, a progressive neurological condition that slowly robbed him of both his legendary verbal grace and his physical dexterity. A funeral service was held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
The man who could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, dazzle the world of heavyweight boxing at the height of the sport’s golden era, and stand against war and injustice in America, is in our memories. His daughter Rasheda said that the legend was “no longer suffering,” describing him as “daddy, my best friend and hero” as well as “the greatest man that ever lived.”
While some debate remains over whether he was the greatest heavyweight to ever enter the ring, boxing historians unanimously agree he was the greatest entertainer the sport ever produced.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, to middle-class parents, Ali started boxing when he was 12, winning Golden Gloves titles before heading to the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight. He changed his name to Muhammad Ali in 1964 after converting to Islam.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, at the age of 43
Achievements and controversies
The first boxer to win the world heavyweight title three times, Ali’s exemplary skills in the boxing ring, colorful trash-talking and historic fights against some of the toughest fighters of all time ensured his place as an immortal icon of the sport. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” was one of many phrases Ali used to describe what he could do in the ring, while “I am the greatest” was a common catchcry. His vanquished foes included George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston. His road to immortality began at amateur level, after he was snapped up by a policeman come gym manager to take up boxing to arrest his aggressive behavior. The rising star soon turned professional and won 19 successive bouts — 15 by knockout — before taking on Liston in February, 1964 for the world heavyweight title.
Aged 22, he took on heavyweight champion Sonny Liston in Miami. He won and proclaimed to the world: “I am the greatest!” Ali was the first man to win heavyweight titles three times.
A supremely gifted athlete who excelled in one of the greatest eras of heavyweight boxing, Ali will also be remembered for his quick wit, charismatic turn of phrase and his brave stand against conscription, the Vietnam War and racial inequality. But Ali also proved to be a divisive, polarising figure in America, refusing to be conscripted into the US military in 1967 due to his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. His stance against conscription cast him as a left-wing symbol of the anti-establishment movement in America.
Ali successfully defended his title six times, including a rematch with Liston. Then, in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted to serve in the US Army. He’d said previously that the war did not comport with his faith, and that he had “no quarrel” with America’s enemy, the Vietcong.
As his profile rose, Ali acted out against American racism. After he was refused services at a soda fountain counter, he said, he threw his Olympic gold medal into a river.
The new champion soon renounced Cassius Clay as his “slave name” and said he would be known from then on as Muhammad Ali — bestowed by Nation of Islam founder Elijah Muhammad. He was 22 years old. The move split sports fans and the broader American public: an American sports champion rejecting his birth name and adopting one that sounded ‘subversive’ to fanatics.
Ali attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1959 and converted to Sunni Islam in 1975. In 1967, he famously refused to fight in Vietnam, citing religious reasons.
Recoiling from the sport’s tightly knit community of agents, mafias and promoters, Ali found guidance instead from the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected the pacifism of most civil rights activism. Inspired by Malcolm X, one of the group’s leaders, he converted in 1963. But he kept his new faith a secret until the crown was safely in hand. That came the following year, when heavyweight champion Sonny Liston agreed to fight Ali. The challenger geared up for the bout with a litany of insults and rhymes, including the line, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He beat the fearsome Liston in a sixth-round technical knockout before a stunned Miami Beach crowd. In the ring, Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world.”
Even as his health declined, Ali did not shy from politics or controversy, releasing a statement criticizing Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda,” he said. The remark bookended the life of a man who burst into the national consciousness in the early 1960s, when as a young heavyweight champion he converted to Islam and became an emblem of strength, eloquence, conscience and courage.
Ali was an anti-establishment showman who transcended borders and barriers, race and religion. His fights against other men became spectacles, but he embodied much greater battles. He turned professional shortly afterward, supported at first by Louisville business owners who guaranteed him an unprecedented 50-50 split in earnings. His knack for talking up his own talents — often in verse — earned him the dismissive nickname “the Louisville Lip,” but he backed up his talk with action, relocating to Miami to train with the legendary trainer Angelo Dundee and build a case for getting a shot at the heavyweight title.
Recoiling from the sport’s tightly knit community of agents, mafias and promoters, Ali found guidance instead from the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim sect that advocated racial separation and rejected the pacifism of most civil rights activism.
Religion and freedom
Inspired by Malcolm X, one of the group’s leaders, he converted in 1963. But he kept his new faith a secret until the crown was safely in hand. That came the following year, when heavyweight champion Sonny Liston agreed to fight Ali. The challenger geared up for the bout with a litany of insults and rhymes, including the line, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” He beat the fearsome Liston in a sixth-round technical knockout before a stunned Miami Beach crowd. In the ring, Ali proclaimed, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world.” “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some dark skinned people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?” Ali said in an interview. His stand culminated with an April appearance at an Army recruiting station, where he refused to step forward when his name was called. The reaction was swift and harsh. He was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison.
Ali fought for freedom, justice, equality and religious beliefs. Ali’s fiery commentary was praised by antiwar activists and black nationalists and vilified by conservatives, including many other athletes and sportswriters. His appeal took four years to reach the US Supreme Court, which in June 1971 reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision that found the Department of Justice had improperly told the draft board that Ali’s stance wasn’t motivated by religious belief.
Released on appeal but unable to fight or leave the country, Ali turned to the lecture circuit, speaking on college campuses, where he engaged in heated debates, pointing out the hypocrisy of denying rights to blacks even as they were ordered to fight the country’s battles abroad. “My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese,” Ali told one white student who challenged his draft avoidance.
Toward the end of his legal saga, Georgia agreed to issue Ali a boxing license, which allowed him to fight Jerry Quarry, whom he beat. Six months later, at a sold-out Madison Square Garden, he lost to Joe Frazier in a 15-round duel touted as “the fight of the century.” It was Ali’s first defeat as a pro. That fight led to one of boxing’s and sport’s greatest rivalries. Ali and Frazier fought again in 1974, after Frazier had lost his crown. This time, Ali won in a unanimous decision, making him the lead challenger for the heavyweight title. Finally, Ali delivered a historic performance in the ring, knocking out Foreman in the eighth round. The maneuver has been copied by many other champions since.
The third fight in the Ali-Frazier trilogy followed in 1975, the “Thrilla in Manila” that is now regarded as one of the best boxing matches of all time. Ali won in a technical knockout in the 15th round. Ali successfully defended his title until 1978, when he was beaten by a young Leon Spinks, and then quickly took it back. He retired in 1979, when he was 37. The following year, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Health and travel
Even as his health gradually declined, Ali — who switched to more mainstream branches of Islam — threw himself into humanitarian causes, traveling to Lebanon in 1985 and Iraq in 1990 to seek the release of American hostages. In 1996, he lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, lifting the torch with shaking arms. With each public appearance he seemed more feeble, a stark contrast to his outsized aura. He continued to be one of the most recognizable people in the world.
He traveled incessantly for many years, crisscrossing the globe in appearances in which he made money but also pushed philanthropic causes. He met with presidents, royalty, heads of state, the Pope. He told “People” magazine that his largest regret was not playing a more intimate role in the raising of his children. But he said he did not regret boxing. “If I wasn’t a boxer, I wouldn’t be famous,” he said. “If I wasn’t famous, I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing now.”
In 2005, President George W. Bush honored Ali with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his hometown of Louisville opened the Muhammad Ali Center, chronicling his life but also as a forum for promoting tolerance and respect.
Divorced three times and the father of nine children — one of whom, Laila, become a boxer — Ali married his last wife, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams, in 1986; they lived for a long time in Berrien Springs, Michigan, then moved to Arizona.
In recent years, Ali’s health began to suffer dramatically. There was a death scare in 2013, and last year he was rushed to the hospital after being found unresponsive. He recovered and returned to his new home in Arizona. In his final years, Ali was barely able to speak. Asked to share his personal philosophy with NPR in 2009, Ali let his wife read his essay: “I never thought of the possibility of failing, only of the fame and glory I was going to get when I won,” Ali wrote. “I could see it. I could almost feel it. When I proclaimed that I was the greatest of all time, I believed in myself, and I still do.”
An all-time boxing great and one of sport’s most charismatic entertainers, Muhammad Ali leaves behind a legacy of thrilling fights, trash talk poetry and taking a stand against inequality and war.
Tributes have poured in for Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight champion boxer who riveted the world with his sporting feats, quick-witted commentary and civil rights activism. Fellow athletes were quick to offer their condolences. “God came for his champion. So long great one,” boxer Mike Tyson said on Twitter. “RIP to The Greatest Muhammad Ali, you have given something to boxing that will never be forgotten,” tweeted Floyd Mayweather. British boxer Amir Khan, meanwhile, offered “prayers and thoughts”. Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino former world champion professional boxer, said the boxing world would benefit from Ali’s legacy. “We lost a giant today,” said Pacquiai. “Boxing benefited from Muhammad Ali’s talents but not nearly as much as mankind benefitted from his humanity.” “A part of me slipped away,” George Foreman said on Twitter, calling the legendary fellow boxer by his “the Greatest” nickname.
Our hearts are deeply saddened yet both appreciative and relieved that the greatest is now resting in the greatest place.