An innovative, professional pugilist with devastating knock-out blows and an influential social critic and philanthropist, Muhammad Ali finally succumbed to Parkinson’s disease Friday, at a Phoenix, Ariz., facility in the United States.
Ali is known not only for the victories he garnered in the ring but also for his doggedness and contributions to the advancement of humanity, particularly the inspiration and pride he gave to millions of African Americans and Blacks worldwide.
Apart from these facts, Ali was an Olympic hero and a three-time heavyweight title champion – a feat never achieved by anyone before him.
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Born to the parents of Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky., Ali developed an interest in boxing at 12 after a chat with police officer Joe Martin over his stolen bike.
Ali began working with Martin who trained other young boxers at a local gym. At the age of 22, Ali fought bravely in the ring and upset Sonny Liston to become the World Heavyweight Champion in 1964. He equally won another world heavyweight champion title in 1974, and yet another, in 1978.
Ali fought against some of world’s bests, including Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams and more. To these opponents, Ali was a “moving target.”
In the words of Patterson, he said, “It is very hard to hit a moving target, and Ali moved all the time, with such grace, 3 minutes of every round for 15 rounds. He never stopped. It was extraordinary.”
Ali knocked out Liston with such a ferocious blow, it was dubbed the “phantom punch.” As Ali began to lose physical agility and flexibility, he changed to the “rope-a-dope” strategy, where he would lie on the ropes, conserve his energy, and incite opponents to take him, making sure to drain all of their energies.
Once the opponent got tired, Ali would launch his attack with precise, sudden, and quick punches, and at the time, his speed, mobility, and strategy were unmatchable.
After already converting to Islam and joining the Nation of Islam, Ali made the decision not to be drafted into the army to fight in the Vietnam war as a result of his faith as well as a desire to save innocent Vietnamese lives.
“[My] conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what?” Ali asked.
As a staunch advocate of Black pride and racial justice, Ali was found guilty of draft evasion charges, stripped of his heavyweight title, and imprisoned.
But Ali fought on.
His courage inspired a lot of African Americans, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Basketball star LeBron James said of Ali, “When I was a kid, I was amazed by what Ali did in the ring. As I grew older and started to read about him and watch things about him, I started to realize what he did in the ring was secondary to what he meant outside the ring — just his influence, what he stood for.”
James said that as an African American, Ali was largely responsible for his ability to enjoy not only fame and wealth as a professional athlete but also the opportunities that come with it.
Lebron’s experience was echoed by William Rhoden, a New York Times columnist, when he said, “Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness.”
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome due to head trauma from boxing. However, even when he retired, Ali never tired of helping people and saving lives. He supported various initiatives to end poverty in the world, fought hunger (especially in the developing countries), supported the Special Olympics, the eradication of HIV/AIDS, donated to humanitarian causes, and more.
Ali became such a prominent figure that when he visited Zaire, the crowds were chanting his name nonstop. He even managed to attend the inauguration of the first African-American U.S. president, Barack Obama, in January 2009 and was given a Presidential Award after the inauguration for his public service record.
Ali married four times and had seven daughters and two sons. He won several awards in his years of fighting in the ring, such as the Sports Personality of the Century, Kentucky Athlete of the Century, Otto Hahn Peace Medal in Gold, and more.
He made significant contributions to the Civil Rights Movement and transformed the image of the ordinary African-American athlete in America by embracing his racial pride and constantly speaking truth to power.
To historians, fans, and commentators, Ali represents one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. His legendary contributions to achieving true freedom for all will never fade.