Muhammad Ali, considered by many the greatest boxer who ever lived and maybe the greatest athlete of the 20th century, has died at the age of 74.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, he would win a Gold Medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics and, four years later, upset Sonny Liston to win the Heavyweight Championship of the world at the age of 22. At the beginning of his career, Clay’s brashness alienated and bewildered his peers and the public alike. This alienation and bewilderment would be amplified when he converted to Islam (joining the Nation of Islam) and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Yet Ali could back up his talk of being The Greatest.
Ali would gradually gain broad public sympathy when he was stripped of the World Heavyweight title because he refused to be drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam. He would be effectively deprived of his livelihood during the peak of his career as he was arrested and later convicted of draft evasion. The U.S. Supreme Court would unanimously overturn his conviction.
Despite his exile, the best was still to come with his three fights against Joe Frazier including the Thrilla in Manila (regrettably Ali had a difficult relationship with Frazier) and regaining the World Heavyweight Title in The Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire against George Foreman which gave birth to the term “rope-a-dope”. During these years, Ali also fought the likes of Ken Norton (broken jaw and all), George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson and Leon Spinks. Over a period of nearly 15 years, Ali would win the World Heavyweight Title over a period of nearly 15 years.
The rigors of the ring would take a toll on Ali impairing his movement and speech that had so electrified the world. He would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in the early 1980’s. Yet he maintained a public life to the very end honored the world over when he lit the flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and bestowed with a Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush in 2005.
His religious beliefs would evolve throughout his life. Ali would distance himself from the Nation of Islam in the mid-70’s and spend most of his life as an orthodox Sunni Muslim before embracing Sufism during the last decade of his life. In one of his last public statements in December 2015, Ali delivered one last knockout when he criticized Donald Trump for his Muslim immigration and travel ban.
On this sad evening, let us remember Ali for what he did best – come out on top.
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