As he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, Muhammad Ali was maybe as great of an athlete who ever lived. The scope of his boxing accomplishments speaks for themselves – 56 wins in 61 matches and three-time heavyweight champion of the world. But the self-proclaimed “greatest of all-time” was so much more than that. The enormous impact he left outside of the ring may be what he is best remembered for.
Ali’s story is one of triumph, sacrifice, standing up for what he believed in, and activism. Born Cassius Clay on January 17, 1942, he grew up in the then-segregated state of Kentucky. He developed an interest in boxing after his bike was stolen when he was 12 years old. By the age of 18, he had won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.
As great as he was inside the ring, nothing he had accomplished up to that point drew more attention than when he announced he would be converting to Islam, days after his defeat of Sonny Liston to claim his first world heavyweight title. Then in 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the Vietnam War, due to his religious beliefs and his opposition to the war in general. He was vilified for this in the United States but stood by his principles despite being sentenced to prison and receiving a ban from boxing. Although both decisions would eventually be overturned, Ali stated that he believed he would never box again. He would not let anything get in the way of his beliefs, even if that meant going to prison and never boxing again.
Though Ali was so heavily scrutinized at times, he was celebrated by many others. To properly understand Muhammad Ali, it’s important to recognize the nature of the era. The 1960s were the decade of political unrest and progressive social movements. In avoiding the draft, Ali did not run away from it but was rather willing to accept the punishment that came with that decision. Additionally, he questioned why he should fight for a country that was unwilling to protect his own rights at home, as Jim Crow laws had only been abolished a couple of years prior and racism was still rampant. He became a symbol of strength and leadership for African Americans and someone they could follow in standing up against the corrupt establishment.
Ali eventually gained the support of the many Americans opposed to the war, as well as people who simply admired his talent, regardless of his political views. He was as polarizing a figure as there could be, always hyping himself up before matches and mastering tactics of trash talk and intimidation. In fact, Ali is considered an early influence in the development of hip-hop, due to his use of rhyme and wit to deliver insults to his competitors.
After his boxing career, Ali frequently participated in charity work and world activism. Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan for the Onondaga Nation, was one of the speakers who delivered a eulogy at Ali’s funeral on Friday. He spoke about how Ali strongly advocated for the rights of Native Americans. One example was when he marched into Washington for the Longest Walk, which was a 1978 protest of a bill that would have nullified all treaties that the U.S. Government made with the Native Americans.
Muhammad Ali was more than just a great boxer. He was a national icon and a man who was willing to sacrifice everything for what he saw as the greater good. As great as he was, he knew how to use his fame as a platform to promote the ideas he believed in. It was rare, and still is, for athletes to speak out on political and social issues, but Ali knew he had the type of influence to take a stand.
He was a true showman, with an impeccable ability to draw people into his boxing matches and elicit a response, whether positive or negative. Though he was brash in the ring and made a name for himself through self-promotion and intimidation, his charitable work, activism, and status as an ambassador for world peace after his career showed the true human side of who Ali really was.
Muhammad Ali will live on forever as an inspirational figure who taught us to stand up for our rights and what we believe in. He taught us to be courageous in the face of adversity. After all, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”