Although he won 56 out of 61 fights, the Olympic title, was crowned world champion three times and acclaimed athlete of the 20th century, it was the combination of athleticism. humanitarianism and activism that made Ali the greatest.
In his later years the athlete and activist softened some of his views. He rejected the racial separatism promoted by the Nation of Islam. The American establishment, rather than fearing him, came to love him. But, by then, he had already made a matchless contribution to American history as an athlete who changed his sport, and as an activist who contributed to changing his country and spoke out against injustices when others did not.
He was courageous inside and outside of the boxing ring.
He was an athlete and an activist and those athletes in the contemporary era who take on social and political responsibilities should be respected as both athletes and activists.
Impact and Inspiration
“Muhammad Ali let me know I could have opinions and express them. I cannot do justice in words to express what that meant to a young black kid growing up in Alabama”
Basketball great Charles Barkley talking of Muhammad Ali’s impact on his life
“At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labelled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand taller. I may be 7ft 2in but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.”
Former basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
In his own words:
Ali on racism
“Giving up a chance at the Olympics and a gold medal is a big sacrifice but anything they do that’s designated to get freedom and equality for their people, I’m with 1,000 per cent”.
Talking about the the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the 1968 Mexico Protest
“Hating people because of their colour is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which colour does the hating. It’s just plain wrong”.
“I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catchin’ hell, but as long as they ain’t free. I ain’t free”.
On Vietnam War and the Supreme Court
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong”.
“I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over.”
“I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality”.
Tributes to Muhammad Ali
“To my generation he made it real,” Civil rights leader.
“Boxing’s greatest of all time, an inspiration to me and so many people”- Flyweight World Champion.
“You were a champion in so many ways. You ‘fought’ well. Rest well.” – Bernice King, daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King
Martin Luther king Jr
“He is giving up millions of dollars to do what his conscience tells him is right”.
“Cleveland Williams, that was a great fight but the greatest he ever looked was against Folley and if he had gone on from there, there is no telling”.
Angelo Dundee talking about the last fight before the 3-and-a-half-year exile.
“He was the greatest figure in my professional life”.
Michelle and Barak Obama
“A man who fought for us. He stood with King and Mandela; stood up when it was hard. His fight outside the ring would cost him his title. It would earn him enemies on the left and the right. But Ali stood his ground. And his victory helped us to get used to the America we recognise today- he spoke out when others would not”
Barak Obama on what Muhammad Ali meant to me
“Muhammad Al represents and symbolises greatness for all the world over”.
Hilary and Bill Clinton
“We watched him grow from the brash self-confidence of youth and success into a manhood full of religious and political convictions that led him to make tough choices and live with the consequences. Along the way we saw him courageous in the ring, inspiring to the young, compassionate to those in need, and strong and good-humored in bearing the burden of his own health challenges”.
The Brief Fact File
Cassius Marcella Clay born 17 January in Louisville and named after a prominent 19th century abolitionist.
Amateur boxing debut.
Wins Olympic Gold Medal, Rome.
Makes his professional boxing debut.
Attends first Nation of Islam meeting.
Meets Malcolm X.
Fights Henry Cooper in the UK.
Becomes world heavyweight champion after being 7-1 underdog.
Joins the Nation of Islam.
Re-match with Sonny Liston in front of only a few thousand people.
Defends his title 5 times.
Re-match with Henry Cooper.
Stripped of heavyweight title for refusing US draft, handed a five year suspended sentence, a 10,000 US dollar fine and banned from travelling abroad. Remains free while appealing the conviction.
New York State Athletic commission suspends his boxing licence.
Speaks at anti-war rally in San Francisco.
US supreme court hands back his boxing licence.
Loses world title to Joe Frazier.
Conviction for draft dodging reversed by US Supreme Court.
By November had won ninth comeback fight since losing to Frazier.
Visits the Republic of Ireland, defeats Al Lewis at Croke Park.
Wins back world heavyweight title from George Foreman.
A man denounced as anti-American in 1967 is now invited to the White House.
Wins rematch with Joe Frazier.
Loses his title to Leon Spinks in February and regains it seven months later.
Becomes first man in the world to win Heavyweight Championship of the World three times.
Announces retirement for the first time.
Loses to Larry Holmes his former sparring partner, in a fight that many state should never have taken place.
Public learn of the athlete and activist suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Helps in the release of 15 hostages from Iraq.
Visits Glasgow for the second time, the first being in 1965.
Lights the torch at the Atlantic Olympic Games and is returned his Olympic medal thrown away or lost in 1960.
Visit to deliver humanitarian aid to Cuba. Ali was on his second visit to Cuba in two years, where he delivered to a Havana hospital a donation of more than $1.2 million of medical aid from a U.S. humanitarian organisation, the Disarm Education Fund.
Named UN messenger of peace for his work in developing countries.
Named BBC Sports personality of the 20th century collecting more votes than George Best, Pele, Sir Donald Bradman, Jack Nicklaus and Jesse Owens put together.
Awarded President’s Citizens Medal.
Visits Kabul as UN Peace ambassador.
Joins Mandela ay the special Olympics held in Dublin.
Awarded The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Attends Barack Obama’s inauguration having saluted him at celebratory party days before.
Makes appearance at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games
Muhammad Ali passed away 4 May in Phoenix, Arizona, aged 74.