“Inside the ring or out, ain’t nothing wrong with going down. It’s staying down that’s wrong.
“Every day is different, and some days are better than others, but no matter how challenging the day, I get up and live it. And it is the combination of will and faith that helps me to do that,” Muhammad Ali often felt upon awakening, but this amazing spirit ended on June 3, 2016 with his passing at the age of 74 from Parkinson’s disease. Ali simultaneously was an inspirational man yet a very controversial one. How did this complex man rise to be regarded as one of the most important sports figures – and maybe the most recognized people – of the 20th century?
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born on a cold winter day in January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. First-born children are often reliable, conscientious, controlling, high achievers, almost to the point of being perfectionists, and it appears that many first-born children are natural leaders, self-assured, and confident; Muhammad Ali displayed these qualities to the fullest. He grew to six feet three inches tall and developed a unique, unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer.
Like most children of his era, Clay rode around town on his bicycle. It was 1954 when he was twelve years of age, parking his red-and-white Schwinn bicycle while he and his friend attended the Columbia Auditorium to enjoy free hot dogs and popcorn but when he returned his bicycle was stolen and he was furious. He proclaimed to the attending police officer, Joe Martin, that he was going to “whup” the culprit, but his confidence clearly outweighed his skills. Mr. Martin, who happened to be a boxing coach at the Columbia Gym, suggested that he learn to box if “whupping” was his ultimate plan. And box he did making his amateur boxing debut that same year fighting one-hundred-five bouts and winning all but five! 1960 proved to be monumental in Clay’s life: then eighteen years old, he competed in the summer Olympic Games in Rome climaxing with a gold medal in the heavyweight boxing division. Just a few months later, he made his professional debut and moved up the ranks quickly. 1963 was another pivotal year; he was destined to take the title of heavyweight champion held by Sonny Liston, who at this time was the most intimidating fighter of his day; the fight was scheduled for February 25, 1964. Clay triumphed, the youngest boxer at age twenty-two to earn this title. The Clay-Liston fights catapulted one man’s career and ruined another. This may have been the beginning of the Ali charisma and his moniker changed from “The Louisville Lip” to the “Greatest.”
The Viet Nam war was raging in 1967 and Muhammad Ali’s draft status was changed; he was now eligible for the draft. He refused to serve explaining that he was a conscientious objector and was now a member of the Nation of Islam becoming Muhammad Ali; on that same day March 6, 1964, he was convicted of draft evasion. His refusal to perform military service, based on religious and political reasons, resulted in severe professional punishments, the most strident were being stripped of his boxing titles and being forbidden to fight from March 1967 to October 1970. He was twenty-nine years old when his convictions were overturned but sadly, he lost the best years of his fighting career. To earn money to support his family, he joined the lecture circuit to educate his fellow Americans. “Where is a man’s wealth? His wealth is his knowledge. If his wealth is in the bank, he doesn’t possess it.”
Ali retired from boxing in 1981. From then until his death from Parkinson’s disease, a thirty-two-year battle, he devoted himself to religious and charitable work. As testament to his work in developing nations, the United Nations named him a Messenger of Peace, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom as well as Amnesty International’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In September 2012, he was the recipient of the prestigious National Constitution Center Liberty Medal. “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
In the mid-2000, the Muhammad Ali Center, a multicultural museum, opened in Louisville, Kentucky guided by his core principles: a belief in oneself, the conviction to stand behind those beliefs, devotion to those beliefs, self-respect and respect for others, and lastly, spirituality accepting that which is greater than oneself . . . mark his true legacy.
Just 10 years before his death, he was invited to light the Olympic Games cauldron at the opening ceremony in Atlanta, creating one of the most emotional and memorable moments in Olympic history. Muhammad Ali was a trailblazer, that flame representing the hopes and dreams of all people all over the world.