The Greatest is gone. Muhammad Ali, the boxing champion and cultural icon who was one of the most recognizable men in the world, died of a respiratory condition in Scottsdale, Arizona, last night. He was 74.
Ali held various boxing championships over his 21-year professional career, but he was more than a boxer or an athlete. He had a revolutionary impact on American society—he was a galvanizing anti-establishment force in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, and was the most charismatic and one of the most fearless public figures in our nation’s history. Already a huge celebrity in America in the early ‘60s due to his in-ring success, his magnetic personality, and his unparalleled ability to talk trash his opponents, Ali became a timeless institution through his advocacy for Black Power and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. He gave up three years of the peak of his career to stand on principle—when he refused to be drafted in 1967, he was stripped of his championships and suspended from the ring while he fought the US government in court. He appeared regularly on talk shows and the college lecture circuit, where he used his remarkable promo skills to argue against the war, in his own way helping turn the public tide against the Vietnam War in the late ‘60s.
Born and raised as Cassius Marcellus Clay , Jr., in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali took up boxing at the age of 12 so he could get revenge on the thief who took his bicycle. He won numerous local and national amateur titles before winning the Light Heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Olympics. He turned pro and in 1964 shocked the world when, at the age of 22, he beat the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston for the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles, becoming the youngest fighter to ever beat a heavyweight champion for the title. Shortly after this victory he renamed himself Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam, declaring his birth name Cassius Clay to be his “slave name,” beginning his public activism for black pride. He remained undefeated until he was suspended and stripped of his titles in 1967, but eventually beat even the US government when the Supreme Court overruled his conviction in 1971.
His boxing license was reinstated in 1970 when his case was in appeal, and despite staying out of the ring for most of his late 20s, and despite losing his first world title match to Joe Frazier in the “Fight of the Century” (Ali’s first professional loss ever), Ali eventually returned to the top of the boxing world when he reclaimed the WBA and WBC world titles from the much younger George Foreman in the 1974 bout known as “The Rumble in the Jungle.” Ali held the titles for over three years, dropping them in 1978 at the age of 36 to the then-24-year-old Leon Spinks. Ali would win the WBA title back from Spinks exactly seven months later, but vacated that title in 1979, and lost his bid to reclaim the WBC title from champion Larry Holmes in 1980. His final fight was in 1981, when he lost to the future world champion Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
Ali remained one of the most famous people in the world after retiring. Despite being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, he made regular media appearances and served in ceremonial and goodwill capacities for various organizations into the 21st century. He memorably lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, and was one of the Flagbearers in London at the 2012 Summer Olympics. In 1991 he met with Saddam Hussein to negotiate for the release of US hostages; in 2002 he visited Kabul as a “Messenger of Peace” for the United Nations. Despite taking on the US government in the 1960s, he was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. He won numerous “athlete of the century” polls at the end of the 20th century. He’s probably had more documentaries made about him than any other athlete. He even once fought Superman in a comic book. Muhammad Ali was truly the Greatest, and his incomparable legacy will never be forgotten.