Muhammad Ali: The Greatest

LOS ANGELES - NOVEMBER 15,1962: Cassius Clay (R) throws a left punch to Archie Moore during the fight at the Sports Arena on November 15,1962 in Los Angeles, California. Cassius Clay won by a KO 4. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – NOVEMBER 15,1962: Cassius Clay (R) throws a left punch to Archie Moore during the fight at the Sports Arena on November 15,1962 in Los Angeles, California. Cassius Clay won by a KO 4. (Photo by: The Ring Magazine/Getty Images)

Boxer. Showman. Activist. The Greatest.

All of those words above can be used to describe Muhammad Ali. The legendary athlete is one of the most recognizable men on the planet. The icon that was once known as Cassius Clay was never humble, always loud and spectacularly entertaining. Ali’s record as a boxer is 56 wins (37 by knockout) and 5 losses. “The Greatest” was a 3-time heavyweight champion and had a level of skill that was unmatched. He was the greatest boxer that ever lived, but his legacy was about more than just fighting. He was also highly aware of social issues in his country and abroad.

Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17th, 1942. Clay won a spot on the 1960 Olympic Team after only picking up the sport of fighting a few years prior. He was able to win the gold medal as a light heavyweight at the Rome, Italy games. Despite the achievements made by Clay in the Olympics, he still had to face the racial turmoil that plagued the African American community during the 60s.

UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 17: The American boxer Cassius CLAY arriving in London for a match with a British opponent, Henry COOPER. He is showing his fist and five fingers, representing the number of rounds he will need to knock COOPER out. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

UNITED KINGDOM – MAY 17: The American boxer Cassius CLAY arriving in London for a match with a British opponent, Henry COOPER. He is showing his fist and five fingers, representing the number of rounds he will need to knock COOPER out. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

When Cassius returned home after winning gold he was treated as a hero by many in his country. His Olympic victory could not however completely expunge the reality of what it meant to be a black man in the south at that time. He still was not allowed to eat at certain restaurants in Kentucky that were segregated. Cassius Clay learned very early that no athletic feat on his part could change the harsh truth of discrimination.

Athletes of today, especially the African American ones, get grief from time to time for not taking on social issues. A lot of critics attribute that lack of attention to empathy. The truth might have more to do with necessity rather than compassion. We obviously do not currently live in a society that is free of discrimination and racism. However, the world we live in right now is far more accepting of African Americans than the one Muhammad Ali lived in as an active boxer. The past sacrifices of sport legends like Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali have made the sacrifices needed by current athletes far less imperative.

January 1963 - Pittsburgh: Boxing heavyweight contender Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) reclining bare-chested in hotel room and pointing finger while expounding on boxing. (Photo by Marvin Lichtner/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

January 1963 – Pittsburgh: Boxing heavyweight contender Cassius Clay (now Muhammad Ali) reclining bare-chested in hotel room and pointing finger while expounding on boxing. (Photo by Marvin Lichtner/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images)

By 1964 (Muhammad Ali was still going by the name of Cassius Clay at this point) Clay was 19-0 and quickly establishing himself as an elite level boxer. His record and performance landed him a title fight against Sonny Liston. Liston was a powerhouse boxer and he was predicted to easily beat the 22-year-old Clay. There were very few sports’ writers or boxing fans at that time that didn’t think Liston would completely annihilate Clay. Cassius was able to accomplish a remarkable upset when he defeated Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”—Clay shouted as he ran around the ring in joy right after his shocking victory. Winning that fight with Liston not only brought him a heavy weight championship…it also showcased his bigger than life personality to the masses. The brashness and energy he displayed after the win became a Muhammad Ali signature. The boxer was probably the biggest trash talker the sports world has ever seen—but his ability always backed up his mouth.

While training for the Sonny Liston bout, Cassius began speaking to members of the Nation of Islam. He quickly formed a strong relationship with Malcolm X and that bond helped to motivate his decision to become a Muslim. Shortly after the Sonny Liston victory Clay announced that he was joining the Nation of Islam. Soon after that announcement he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. The response he received from the public at large was mostly negative and filled with vitriol.

Ali was a man of substance and principle. He was never afraid to let his beliefs be known to the world. Because of his standing as a celebrity, due to his remarkable ability inside a ring, he had a platform. People listened and paid attention to Muhammad…even when they didn’t agree with what he was saying. He made the most of his superstar status and didn’t squander it on trivial affairs. The cultural standing he obtained inside a ring he used to voice his personal beliefs as a man outside of it.

25 MAY 1965: CASSIUS CLAY OF THE UNITED STATES STANDS OVER THE PRONE FIGURE OF HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION SONNY LISTON DURING THEIR BOUT HELD IN LEWISTON, MAINE. CLAY WON THE FIGHT WITH A FIRST ROUND KNOCK-OUT TO CLAIM THE TITLE. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive

25 MAY 1965: CASSIUS CLAY OF THE UNITED STATES STANDS OVER THE PRONE FIGURE OF HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION SONNY LISTON DURING THEIR BOUT HELD IN LEWISTON, MAINE. CLAY WON THE FIGHT WITH A FIRST ROUND KNOCK-OUT TO CLAIM THE TITLE. Mandatory Credit: Allsport Hulton/Archive

In 1967 Muhammad Ali was inducted into the Armed Services. He refused the induction based on his religious beliefs. The Vietnam War was escalating around this time and more and more young American men were being called upon to participate in the conflict. The boxer was steadfast in his refusal to join and that led to one of the athlete’s most famous quotes. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…”

His resistance to fight in Vietnam and his numerous sound bites on the subject, like his aforementioned quote, put him at serious odds with most of the United States. That turmoil led to Muhammad not being allowed to box in most states throughout the country. Eventually Ali was stripped of his championship title and was not allowed to fight anywhere in America. He wouldn’t fight again for almost 4 years.

“The Greatest” was one of the very first celebrities to speak out against the Vietnam War and he paid dearly for being so outspoken on the topic. By 1970 the views the country had as a whole on Vietnam were becoming closer to that of Ali’s once controversial ones. His thoughts on the war were no longer as divisive or as singular in the changing political climate. The iconic boxer was eventually allowed to fight once again. Some of the most unforgettable Ali moments came after he was reinstated as a boxer. Some of the fights were so larger than life that they were given titles—like ‘The Thrilla in Manila” and “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

There may be no better sport’s related metaphor for life than the art of boxing. In life we all get knocked down and we can either get up or stay down. Ali was knocked down in his personal life and inside the ring more than a few times. No matter what Muhammad Ali was hit with, he always seemed to get back up, inside the ring and out.

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