As legend has it, Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay in Louisville, KY, took up boxing so that he could beat up the thief who stole his bicycle. He channeled his anger over the theft into an illustrious career as a boxer, first winning an Olympic gold medal in 1960 and then going on to become the most famous athlete in the world.
His career was derailed when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War on the grounds that it was in opposition to his religion. He was convicted of dodging the draft, suspended from boxing for 3 ½ years, stripped of his boxing titles, and vilified by mainstream America. He returned to the ring after the Supreme Court overturned his conviction and the boxing commission reinstated him.
Muhammad Ali was undefeated but out of practice when he fought Joe Frazier in a hotly anticipated fight at Madison Square Garden, billed as the Fight of the Century of just the Fight. He lost that particular match, but went on to fight many others, including a rematch against Frazier called the Thriller in Manila, and a win against George Foreman called the Rumble in the Jungle. He probably boxed well past his prime and took too much pounding to the head that resulted in Parkinson’s Disease, a neurological impairment that left him with slurred speech, accompanied by tremors, and eventually loss of movement.
Ali proclaimed himself The Greatest and then lived up to his own hype. In addition to his boxing prowess, he was confident, funny, witty, and caring. He was also a principled peace activist and a philanthropist. My father has always been one of his biggest fans. He proudly displays an autograph that he got from Ali, when he met him aboard a plane in the 1970’s. Ali gave autographs happily because he treated people in the way that he wished to be treated. President George W. Bush bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon him in 2005, the highest civilian honor, calling him a ‘man of peace’ and the ‘Greatest of All Time’. RIP The Greatest