“The man who has no imagination has no wings”
Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
Muhammad Ali born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer and activist. He is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century. From early in his career, Ali was known as an inspiring, controversial, and polarising figure both inside and outside the ring.
Cassius Clay was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and began training as an amateur boxer when he was 12 years old. At age 18, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and turned professional later that year. At age 22 in 1964, he won the WBA, WBC, and lineal heavyweight titles from Sonny Liston in a big upset. Clay then converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”, to Muhammad Ali. He set an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonised the white establishment by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
Ali is regarded as one of the leading heavyweight boxers of the 20th century. He remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion, having won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25 and September 19, 1964, Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion. He is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year six times. He was ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated, the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, and the third greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN Sports-Century. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight; the “Fight of the Century”, “Super Fight II”, the “Thrilla in Manila” versus his rival Joe Frazier, and “The Rumble in the Jungle” versus George Foreman.
At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in and indeed craved the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish. He was known for trash talking, and often free-styled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry, both for his trash talking in boxing and as political poetry for his activism, anticipating elements of rap and hip hop music. As a musician, Ali recorded two spoken word albums and a rhythm and blues song, and received two Grammy Award nominations. As an actor, he performed in several films and a Broadway musical. Additionally, Ali wrote two autobiographies, one during and one after his boxing career.
As a Muslim, Ali was initially affiliated with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI) and advocated their black separatist ideology. He later disavowed the NOI, adhering to Sunni Islam, practicing Sufism, and supporting racial integration, like his former mentor Malcolm X.
After retiring from boxing in 1981, Ali devoted his life to religious and charitable work. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, which his doctors attributed to boxing-related brain injuries. As the condition worsened, Ali made limited public appearances and was cared for by his family until his death on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona.