On Friday night, Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74. The world immediately began to mourn the loss of the man who was known the world over simply yet emphatically as The Greatest.
Like anyone with even a passing interest in sport, I found myself affected by the loss of such a titan. With death comes a finality that allows you to look back upon their lives for a definitive narrative. It says a lot about Muhammad Ali that he had several, while he was also seemingly involved in some of the most seismic moments that shaped the entire world.
In looking back at how Muhammad Ali changed the shape the world in such a variety of ways I couldn’t help but think about a line from Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic of Abraham Lincoln, in which the soon to be fallen 16th President of the United States asks, “Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?”
It’s a somewhat arrogant question. One that supposes that people are dropped into the world at a certain point to change it. But it’s one that suits an individual who knows that he’s at the heart of a changing world. It’s a question that can only be pondered by a handful of individuals in the history of time, and Muhammad Ali is one of those.
— Entertainment Weekly (@EW) June 4, 2016
Let’s just look at his record as a boxer, first, a sport that he irrevocably changed because of his exciting and charismatic displays. The only boxer to ever win the heavyweight title on three occasions, which he did in 1964, 1974, and 1978, Ali had a speed, power, tactical nous, and resolve that meant he could defeat his opponents in a variety of ways. Something that he did in his fights with Sonny Liston in 1964 and 1965, against George Foreman in 1974’s Rumble In The Jungle, and then Joe Frazier in 1975’s Thrilla in Manila.
But it goes beyond that. The world of sport – heck, the entire world itself, had never come across a wit and personality like Muhammad Ali’s before. As Cassius Clay, he made his professional boxing debut in October 1960, at a time when television was in the ascendency and people could genuinely get a real sense and view of someone’s personality. Ali didn’t flinch in front of the camera, he revelled in it. The internet is now ablaze with his endless stream of quotes that are genuinely hilarious on paper, without even needing to hear the great man utter them. His showmanship proved that charisma can increase the appeal and allure of sport.
But it was the principled, fearless, and honest way that Muhammad Ali handled his political and ideological beliefs that helped to reinforce his standing. After joining the Nation Of Islam in the mid 1960s, he changed his name, disavowing the “slave” name that he’d been born with, Cassius Clay.
Then in 1967, three years after originally winning the heavyweight championship, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. military. Ali cited his religious beliefs and his opposition to the U.S.’ involvement in the Vietnam War as his reasons, explaining that the Civil Rights problems in the U.S. were still too prevalent to warrant his participation in this fight.
Because of this, Muhammad Ali lost his title belt and didn’t fight again for almost four years, between the ages of 25 and 29, which are widely regarded as the peak years for a boxer. While Ali’s actions as a boxer made him an icon for physical, overtly masculine, males, his actions as a conscientious objector made him one to the counterculture generation, too.
— Mike Tyson (@MikeTyson) June 4, 2016
But his greatest battle was to come. 61 bouts over 21 years and the repeated head trauma he’d suffered led to him being diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984.
It was a ailment that he handled with grace and dignity, highlighting a humanity to Ali that was somewhat overlooked because of the other shining personality traits that he possessed.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if Ali chose to live in this era, or instead fit in, he changed it for the better in an innumerable fashion. As a boxer. As a personality. As a protestor. And, simply, as a man.
[Image via Getty Images/Kent Gavin]