How Muhammad Ali 'shook up the world'
Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion boxer and cultural icon, died Friday night in Phoenix at age 74 after a long, public battle with Parkinson’s disease. Ali was arguably the most beloved and recognized sports figure in the world – but it was not always that way.
Vilified from almost the moment he arrived on the national stage, Ali declared himself a legend far earlier than anyone else was willing to do so. When he first gained national exposure, he was a brash, loud-mouthed, 22-year-old upstart named Cassius Clay, who was challenging formidable heavyweight champion Sonny Liston for the title. No one thought he had a chance back in 1964, and when he “shook up the world,” defeating Liston in seven rounds, he changed the worlds of boxing, sports and American culture forever.
The champ stirred more controversy that same year when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali and embraced the radical Nation of Islam. Ali later cited his faith as the reason he did not want to serve in the Vietnam War. His decision to reject the draft sparked national outrage, but also made Ali a counterculture folk hero. Nevertheless, his stalwart stance cost him his championship belt and his boxing license for a period.
In the early 1970s, Ali made a triumphant comeback in a series of high-profile bouts against his most fearsome opponent, the late, great Joe Frazier. Their personalities and boxing styles were polar opposites, but their names will forever be linked due to three epic, racially charged faceoffs. Frazier got the best of Ali the first time, but the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time” won the final two.
In 1974, Ali earned the championship title yet again in one of his most celebrated bouts, “The Rumble in the Jungle.” The fight was a multimillion-dollar spectacular staged in the African nation formerly known as Zaire by the one and only Don King. Ali was a tremendous underdog to his opponent, the younger and physically stronger George Foreman. By employing his signature rope-a-dope technique, which exhausted Foreman, Ali pulled off the impossible – knocking out his heavily favored foe in the eighth round.
Ali would win several more victories into the late ’70s, even after many pundits and prognosticators claimed he was past his prime. Some have speculated that the physical punishment Ali took in his later years in the ring may have caused or contributed to his debilitating Parkinson’s disease, but there was never enough scientific or medical evidence to support that conclusion.
As Ali grew older and he started to display signs of Parkinson’s, he continued to do what he did his entire career: put on a brave face. Time and distance warmed much of the American public to Ali’s old antics, and his bravery in the face of illness served as an inspiration to millions around the world. Ali’s lighting of the Olympic torch at the 1996 Atlanta games remains a cherished memory for many of the millennial generation.
Today, Ali’s boasts and braggadocio have had a heavy influence on professional athletes and the hip-hop generation. His political activism and black pride have also only grown in stature with each ensuing decade. And while Ali’s gift of speech – one of his greatest assets – was largely taken from him in his later years, his presence continued to speak volumes.
There will be athletes who earn more fame and endorsements and stars who are more celebrated. But there will only be one who was the greatest.