King of The Ring and King of Hearts, The Louisville Lip Muhammad Ali was more than just a boxing star. He was some kind of wonderful from Grand Avenue to global icon. Born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Clay, the grandchild of a slave, began boxing as a child to teach himself self-defense to ‘whup’ the thief who’d stolen his bike.
Prize fighter, poet, activist, none could match Ali’s intoxicating blend of charisma, athletic brilliance and historical prominence. The champ has taken his final bow but leaves us with some of the most profound social missives of our time.
The world is in mourning — three-time champion Ali battled Parkinson’s for decades. As the tributes flood in we pay tribute to a humorous, humane man who mesmerized the world with his shuffle, wit, wisdom and his stirring call for justice. At a time when America was deep in the throes of political racial, social and economical turmoil, Ali proclaimed:
“I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be me.”
Converting to Islam the day after he dethroned Sonny Liston as world heavyweight champion, Ali was a shiny, super-charged figure of youthful hope at a time when America was nose-diving into unprecedented social turmoil. Rather than sit back and count the cash, he stood firm and refused the Vietnam war draft. For a prize-winning boxer to turn principled pacifist was unheard of.
Ali sacrificed arguably the best years of his boxing life, his credibility, personal freedom and his livelihood to a greater cause. The American government stuck the knife in, overruling his conscientious objector status, stripping him of his title and his boxing licence, and sentencing him to five years imprisonment (this decision was later reversed).
When Ali refused to support the Vietnam War, many Americans turned their back on him. Bertrand Russell British philosopher and Nobel laureate wrote to him personally telling him that he had, “spoken for the oppressed everywhere.”
Throughout his ban Ali was resolute in his convictions despite risking jail: “I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs ….We [black people] have been in prison for 400 years.”
After three long years in the wilderness Ali returned to the ring to win the world title, not once but twice, heralding the rise of a global superstar who was also a fierce political activist, revered poet and world class showman. Part of the fame drain, he became public property: women would burst into tears when they saw him, carpetbaggers hounded him with business opportunities, and he belonged to the world.
Hunter S Thompson frantically chasing Ali for an interview in a New York hotel wrote, “We both understood the deep and deceptively narrow-looking moat that eighteen years of celebrity forced Ali to dig between his ‘public’ and ‘private’ personas.”
A gifted fighter, boxing pioneer who broke all the rules, he remains a pivotal influence to all those trailing in his wake. In his own words: “I get hit, but all great fighters get hit. Sugar Ray got hit, Joe Louis got hit, and Rocky Marciano got hit. But they had something other fighters didn’t have: the ability to hold on until they cleared up. I got that ability, too, and I had to use it in each of the Frazier fights. That’s one reason I’m a great defensive fighter. The other is my rope-a-dope defense – and when I fought Foreman [in Zaire], he was the dope.”
In his final years Ali pushed for peace and rapprochement, his influence hailed across the world, he electrified, mesmerized and inspired. At heart a humane, humorous man who was undoubtedly Champion of the People:
“I’d like to be remembered as a black man who won the heavyweight title and who was humorous and who treated everyone right,” he said, a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him and who helped as a many of his people as he could – financially, and also in their fight for freedom, justice and equality.