Madonna. Tiger. Whitney. Montana. Jordan. Prince. When you reach a certain level in the world, only one name is used to identity you. Sure, there may be a lot of other people with the same name, but none like you. Ali. Yes, Ali is not only in that list but at the top. He is the greatest, even by his own admission.

He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., after his father. He grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and took up boxing at age 12. He was great as an amateur, winning several state and national boxing titles. In 1960, at the Summer Olympics in Rome, he won the gold medal for light heavyweight boxing. The fall of the same year, he began his professional career. He would quickly beat opponent after opponent and become the top contender against the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Everyone figured Clay would get destroyed against the bigger, more experienced, and bruising fighter Liston. Clay didn’t let that stop him from being outspoken and “poking the bear”. He said Liston was a big ugly bear and that after that fight he would donate him to the zoo. Was he crazy?! You are the new kid on the block and you are taunting the big bad bully. In Miami Beach on February 25, 1964, Clay did the impossible. He became the heavyweight champion of the world by virtue of a TKO in the 7th round, when Liston failed to step back into the ring. Clay ran to the edge of the ring and shouted “I am the greatest! I shook up the world!” How could someone be so defiant to an opponent and more importantly back it up? Was he really the greatest?

Clay would change his name to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam shortly after the Liston fight. “I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.” This bold message and conviction was during the height of the civil rights movement. This young black boy is stating how he is going to determine his life. Clearly, this had not gone unnoticed. Uncle Sam asked him to fight in the Vietnam War in which he refused. He said “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” He took a stance for his religious beliefs publicly considering himself a conscientious objector. Here is the heavyweight champion, in the prime of his career, standing up for his rights. He was arrested and found guilty of draft dodging. He would be stripped of his titles, and none of the 50 states would grant him a boxing license. It wasn’t until four years later that the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn that guilty verdict. His stance inspired not only black people, but anyone that felt the pain of injustice. He became a great example of “if you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for anything.”

Ali would go on to have some of the most memorable fights.  He lost “The Fight of the Century” to Joe Frazier in 1971, but would redeem himself later. He faced insurmountable odds in “The Rumble in the Jungle”, by beating George Foreman in Zaire Africa in 1974. “The Thrilla in Manila” was the third fight with Frazier in 1975, which Ali would win. He would fight other famous boxers like Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, and Larry Holmes, amassing a total 56-5 record with 37 knockouts and three heavyweight champion titles before retiring in 1981. That is greatness but it wasn’t what made him the greatest. It was his love for people and to fight for their injustice. He used his charm and gift of gab to travel the world, promoting peace. He became a global iconic figure before the internet and social media. To this day he had the most memorable Olympic moment, with the lighting of the torch at 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In today’s world, athletes are afraid to take any type of stand for fear of endorsements being taken away or public shame. Ali knew that having a clear conscience and not selling out your people was more important than money.  That is why he is called The People’s Champ. After battling Parkinson’s disease for 30 years he lost his last fight at the age of 74. It was fitting that The Greatest gave the disease the “Rope-a-Dope” fight for that long. He will always “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”.

 

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