The man simply known as “The Greatest” has died. Muhammad Ali inspired millions with his dominance in the ring and his humanitarian efforts outside of it.
He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in west Louisville in January 1942. During which time World War II was taking its toll on the world economy and morale. In Louisville, segregation was law. For a young African-American man, obstacles were plenty and opportunities were few.
Clay first stepped into a boxing ring at the age of 12. He took up boxing and showed considerable promise, spending much of his time training in Smoketown.
In 1960, at age 18, Clay won gold at the Rome Olympics. But his return to Louisville was marked with more obstacles. Clay was refused service at a local diner, and rumors circulated that, out of anger, the best amateur boxer in the world tossed his gold medal into the Ohio River.
Later in 1960, Clay took that racial adversity and won his first professional boxing title at Freedom Hall.
Clay called on that inner strength again in 1964 while fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world.
“If Sonny Liston beats me, I’ll kiss his feet in the rain, tell him he’s the greatest and catch the next jet out. That’s what I think about Sonny Liston.”
Ali won, surprising everyone but himself.
One day after his heavyweight win, Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
“I would like you to call me by my name now … Muhammad. Muhammad Ali.”
Soon after, Ali was forced to fight an opponent that didn’t wear boxing gloves. In 1967, the war in Vietnam had escalated. For religious reasons, Ali refused the draft three times.
“My intention is to box and win a clean fight. But the war, the intention is to kill.. kill.. kill.”
He was arrested, convicted and banned from boxing. Three years later, the United States Supreme Court reversed Ali’s conviction, allowing him back in the ring.
“I’m gonna float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”
Ali rumbled in the jungle, thrilled in Manilla and quickly regained his heavyweight title — the first to accomplish such a feat after a three year absence. It was yet another obstacle overcome by Ali.
He retired in 1981 with 56 wins and 37 knockouts. He is the greatest.
Ali dedicated his life to helping others.
He once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” It’s a sentiment Ali lived by.
Long before he retired from boxing, and consistently since, Ali’s athleticism took a back seat to his humanitarianism.
“I think he was probably one of the first athletes to do humanitarian work. If you think about his first professional fight, he gave his money to Kosair Children’s Hospital, so that began the long journey of humanitarianism,” Greg Roberts, with the Muhammad Ali Center, said.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Ali held exhibition fights to benefit hospitalized veterans and used proceeds from fights to send aid to drought-stricken nations in Africa.
During the first Gulf War, Ali traveled to the Middle East, of his own accord, to seek the release of 15 hostages. The hostages were freed as a result of his intervention.
In Louisville, he made numerous anonymous tuition grants to local colleges.
That means many of the people who received the grants never knew their education had been paid for by Ali.
He even traveled to Afghanistan on behalf of the United Nations as a messenger of peace.
“When you talk about the legacy of Muhammad Ali, there are so many things, so many lessons, that this man understood innately, that were just part of the fabric and core of his being. It serves as a blueprint or a road map for children, for adults and for so many of us,” Ali’s wife, Lonnie Ali, said.
The Muhammad Ali Center
The Muhammad Ali Center opened in November 2005, but it’s only partially a tribute to Ali himself.
“How do you inspire children once Muhammad is gone? What’s going to keep this alive so they can take these lessons that maybe this individual has, and pass this on to children and others to inspire them to be the greatest they can be? That’s why (the Ali Center) is here, it’s not as much a tribute (as a) possibility,” Lonnie Ali said. “Anything is possible; don’t give me excuses, don’t offer excuses, don’t find excuses, stop making excuses — just get out there and do it.”
Local leaders and athletes honored Muhammad Ali at a ceremony in Louisville in February 2000. They spoke of Ali’s achievements, calling the former boxing champ a hero for encouraging so many other people to purse their dreams.
“He’s a treasure to the city and the state, but he’s also a treasure to the world and we’ve been given the privilege to protect Muhammad’s legacy,” Roberts said.
Muhammad Ali Honors
Muhammad Ali was considered one of the most recognized sports figures in the world.
He received numerous awards over the years for his work inside and outside of the ring.
Ali was inducted into Kentucky’s Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 1999 he was honored with a special Athlete of the Century Award.
In 2005, Ali received the presidential Medal of Freedom; in 2009, he received the NAACP President’s Award; and Sports Illustrated named Ali the ‘Sportsman of the Century.’
Ali’s story isn’t about being the greatest, it’s about finding the greatness within.