Muhammad Ali’s impact went far beyond the boxing ring

Muhammad Ali’s impact went far beyond the boxing ring

Legendary boxer also known for his political activism and fight against racism in the U.S.

By Chris Iorfida, CBC Sports
June 3, 2016
Ali celebrates after beating Sonny Liston in 1964. (Getty Images) Ali celebrates after beating Sonny Liston in 1964. (Getty Images)

Muhammad Ali's unique ring genius and legendary performances electrified the boxing world.

His outsized personality and refusal to conform to expectations of how a public figure should act, particularly one of colour, transcended sports and made him a global icon.

Ali died Friday at the age of 74. According to reports, he was battling respiratory issues complicated by the Parkinson's disease he was diagnosed with in the 1980s.

Ali's heavyweight boxing legend was forged over 56 wins in a 61-fight career. The fights that hold the greatest sway: Stunning upsets over the intimidating Sonny Liston (twice) and George Foreman, and breathtaking battles in a trilogy with perfect foil Joe Frazier, which set the standard for all sports rivalries.

Written off as a loquacious clown early in his career, and prematurely as washed up a decade later, the Louisville, Ky., native defied the odds time and again, becoming the first man to win the heavyweight title on three separate occasions.

Ali loomed large for people — even for those who didn't care about boxing or found it abhorrent. He forced society to confront feelings about civil rights, race, religion and war through his defiance of convention and his own government. He changed his name in 1964 in service of Muslim beliefs alien to most, and three years later refused to step forward for an induction order during the height of the Vietnam War.

"I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong," he said. "They never called me nigger."

Ali was 29-0 when he was stripped of his heavyweight title and forcibly sidelined for three-and-a-half years beginning in early 1967 for refusing to serve in the U.S. Armed Services.

He faced a five-year prison term and his passport was revoked, taking away his livelihood. The Supreme Court eventually reversed the conviction 8-0, but he endured scorn and lost millions at the peak of his abilities.

After retirement came the 1984 diagnosis of Parkinson's syndrome, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system. In a cruel irony, the silver-tongued shouter's voice was reduced to a barely audible whisper. The fleet-footed Ali Shuffle gave way to a mummified gait.

Ali became a martyr to some and to others an advertisement for the abolition of the sport. To others still, he was an exemplar of bravery and persistence in the face of disease, as he continued to champion peace and children's causes, travelling extensively when called upon to promote understanding  between East and West, Muslims and Christians.

Ali at the 1960 Rome Olympics (Getty Images) Ali at the 1960 Rome Olympics (Getty Images)

‘What’s my name?’

The Louisville Lip. Mighty Mouth. Black Superman. The King of the World.

The Greatest.

What's in a name? For Ali, everything.

Because just hours after “shocking the world” against Liston, and less than two years after publicly waxing rhapsodic about his birth name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. —  "It's a beautiful name, makes you think of Roman gladiators" -  he was casting off Clay as a slave name.

He was born on Jan. 17, 1942 in segregated Louisville. The racist murder in Mississippi of young Emmett Till, a boy his age, was one of the formative events on his psyche growing up, he later revealed.

Clay's trajectory was set at 12 when his red Schwinn bike was stolen. The police officer he encountered, Joe Martin, just so happened to teach boxing to youth. Clay burst into the sporting world's consciousness with a gold medal performance six years later as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Rome Olympics. 

Trained from his second pro bout by calming influence Angelo Dundee, the lanky six-foot-three fighter racked up wins and press attention with a new brand of braggadocio.

With blistering hand speed and dancer's feet, Clay turned boxing orthodoxy on its ear. He held his hands at his waist, pulled straight back from punches, and rarely hit his opponent to the midsection.

He penned rhyming poems with boastful predictions about his eventual victory, making sure to remark on his ‘pretty’ face after his wins. He riffed on a nonsensical directive, the beginning of which is now part of the lexicon: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee ."

The anchor punch, the Rope-a-Dope. The Rabbit, The Big Ugly Bear, The Washer Woman. He nicknamed tactics and opponents. But something serious was stirring inside for Clay. He was a national figure, but without the same rights as the average white man.

Reporters were barely over the shock of 7-to-1 underdog forcing Liston to quit in their 1964 bout when the winner was confirming the next day that he was a Muslim. He regaled the press while walking in Harlem with Malcolm X, the charismatic minister of the Nation of Islam.

The Nation was not even a mainstream, credible group for most black Americans. For the white establishment, it was frightening.

He would eventually be bestowed the name Muhammad Ali by Elijah Muhammad, head of the Nation. Elijah Muhammad spoke of the need for black self-determination and separatism due to a history of injustice at the hands of "white devils," to a membership, which included a significant number of members who converted in prison.

Ali in the 1960s was arguably the most reviled athlete of all time, certainly among those who hadn't committed any violent crime. The FBI monitored his movement; one phone conversation between Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. may well have been tapped at both ends.

He spent all of 1966 fighting outside the country,  including in Toronto against George Chuvalo, because promoters didn’t consider him sellable.

The New York Times and Associated Press referred to him as Clay for years after his wishes. Opponents Ernie Terrell and Floyd Patterson did, too, and were probably battered for more rounds than was required as a result.

Ring Magazine declared its Fighter of the Year in 1966 "vacant" when he was the only deserving candidate.

"Most emphatically is Cassius Clay not to be held up as an example to the youngsters of the United States," the editors screeched in support of that decision.


TIMELINE: Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali to Global icon


In exile

Dodging the draft added fuel to the fire, branding him a coward or traitor. Joe Louis enlisted in WWII and merely had to fight exhibitions to raise the morale of the troops. Why couldn’t Clay do the same, his detractors wondered?

Ali had initially been declared ineligible to serve in 1964 after twice failing the aptitude test.

"I said I was the greatest, not the smartest," he said sheepishly after the first attempt.

He was reclassified eligible without any additional testing as the Vietnam War effort intensified. He sought a deferment on religious grounds, arguing he was a minister in The Nation, which did not condone a white man’s war.

He refused to step forward when called on April 28, 1967 and was charged. A jury later deliberated for 20 minutes before finding him guilty.

In need of money, he spoke on college campuses, appeared in a musical, and collaborated on a book. He gained fans for his stand, particularly among young people. But it was a long process.

Clay vs. United States was a case that reverberated around the world. Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised gloved fists on the Olympic podium in 1968, and one of the stated goals of their Olympic Project for Human Rights was the return of Ali's title.

"His refusal to go to Vietnam, to go and fight there, and the reasons that he gave, it made him an international hero," Nelson Mandela, a former amateur boxer, told HBO in 2001.

"The news could not be shut out by prison walls, and he became a real legend to us in prison," the South African president said.

As the legal controversy neared its conclusion, Ali would return to the ring. He was a changed fighter, more resourceful as his natural gifts ebbed. He was further humanized by a gutsy losing effort in the most lucrative fight of all time, 1971's Fight of the Century at Madison Square Garden against Frazier. Ali popped up immediately from the canvas after getting decked by a hellacious left hook in the 15th round.

His fortitude would never be questioned again after fighting several rounds with a broken jaw in a 1972 loss to unheralded Ken Norton, but it seemed to close the book on his days as an elite fighter.

Ali vs. Foreman

Defining moment

Ali clawed his way back, avenging the losses to Frazier and Norton to set up a match with undefeated champion Foreman, who had taken less than four rounds total to KO those same two men.

Ali enjoyed what amounted to hometown support in Kinshasa, Zaire, site of the challenge against Foreman in a "Back to Africa" event concocted by nascent promoter Don King. Foreman helped tip the sentiment, surly and far removed from his reinvention decades later as an ever-smiling kitchen grill pitchman.

Fears for Ali's well-being seemed justified after he absorbed Foreman’s powerful shots while lying back in the Rope-a-Dope in the jungle heat. In the eighth, however, he pounced with two right hands that caused the exhausted Foreman to crumple like a rag doll, leading to a rapturous scene in the ring.

Ali's ring legend was sealed. He was the first truly international sports star from the U.S., and he fought all over the globe.

He didn't really need to lace up the gloves again after a hellish rubber match win over Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila in 1975, but like most boxers he couldn't resist the drug of the stage and the paydays. His final two bouts years later against Larry Holmes and Canadian Trevor Berbick were excruciating beatings.


Ali as symbol

Ali in his personal life had come to adopt the more widely practised Sunni Islam after Elijah Muhammad's death, which Malcolm X had once espoused as a logical direction for the Nation.

He would make trips in the years ahead to Libya and Iraq, where he would try and help win the release of Western hostages.

The effects of Parkinson’s began to accelerate in the 1990s. His most memorable public appearance in retirement was opening the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, shakily lighting the torch.

Five years later, he made a rare speaking appearance on the Tribute to Heroes special held days after 9/11. "I wouldn't be here representing Islam if it were terrorist,” he said. “I think all people should know the truth, come to recognize the truth. Islam is peace."

The illness and the passage of time contributed to a softening of his image, quite often a revisionist view that smoothed the thornier aspects of his past. 

There was Ali's cruelness to opponents in the promotion of bouts, most heinously calling Frazier, the son of a dirt poor farmer, an Uncle Tom. He publicly apologized to Frazier in 2001.

There was the opposition to integration and interracial marriage, and his views about women weren’t always enlightened.

As one of the most handsome and charming men on the planet, Ali had enthusiastically served, one entourage member cracked, as a "pelvic missionary." He was married four times and was father to nine children, two out of wedlock. The most famous of his offspring is daughter Laila, who never lost during a brief career as a boxer.

Ali married his fourth wife Lonnie in 1986. The MBA grad was credited with rescuing him from a period of depression and providing a solid footing for Ali as a brand name, after a host of bad financial decisions had been made.

Ali didn't seek pity in his later years. He spoke of his illness as a trial from Allah, and an example of the type of spiritual journey everyone must undertake.

"Someone wrote that I stayed in the game too long and what I loved ended up destroying me," he said. "But if I could do it all again, I would do it exactly the same. Whatever I suffered physically was worth what I have accomplished in life.”

As for his legacy?

"I'd settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn't even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was."

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