Despite the rough nature of his sport, Muhammad Ali was one of the smoothest persons ever to walk the Earth. His poetic verse and well-considered metaphors came out a time during the 1960s when boxers were
better known for punching than speaking. But Muhammad Ali did speak, and spoke intelligently – in a loud, boisterous and uncompromising voice. In this way, Ali was the public epitome of the Black man who
would not be denied and would not back down. Ali, in a way, made it okay to be that man. Barack Obama, and all Black men of his generation, inherited that legacy and that gift from Muhammad Ali.
Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Muhammad Ali grewup as a Baptist. Clay took to the sport of amateur boxing at the age of 12, where he won two national Golden Gloves titles and eventually won the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Ali won a staggering 100 matches with only 5 losses in his amateur career before turning pro in 1960. In his first title fight, Clay triumphed over Sonny Liston with a T.K.O., after having brazenly said he would “shock the world” by doing so. Ali would win many more professional fights in his pro career, 56 in all, in which his winning was no longer all that shocking.
Outside of the boxing ring, Clay was just as powerful. His conversion to Islam, which prompted his name change, made him extremely controversial. Muhammad Ali often publicly declared his allegiance to
Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad during a time when Elijah was regarded with a great deal of hostility by Americans. Ali also supported controversial Nation of Islam beliefs, such as separatism,
and he was also avidly against interracial marriage. Despite his contentious beliefs, Ali remained well regarded by the public.
Ali declared himself a conscientious objector during the height of the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali said. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” In 1967, Ali was convicted of
draft evasion and stripped of his boxing license and titles. After a four-year legal battle, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
Ali was involved in two of the most prominent fights in the history of the sport. First in 1971, there was the “Fight of the Century” in which Ali and Joe Frazier faced each other in Madison Square Garden.
The fight was hyped by sportscasters, newspapers, and of course, Ali’s diatribes. Joe Frazier had become known for his backing of the Vietnam War, while Ali was, of course, vociferously against it. It was a match
of undefeated wills and opposing idealisms. Ultimately, Frazier would win, but in two rematches, Ali was the victor both times, accumulating wins that essentially cemented his legacy. Ali was also the winner of
the “Rumble in the Jungle”, where he knocked George Foreman out and was the impetus behind the term “Rope-A-Dope.”
Since his retirement in 1981, Ali has used his boxing as a pedestal. He has traveled the world many times over, lending both his name and his prestige to honorable causes, especially that of hunger.
Ali’s independent and brazen character during a time of great racial tension was a symbol for all those who admired him as a boxer and as a man. His endeavors helped him earn a Presidential Medal of Freedom and
helped blaze the path for a Black man to be himself in front of the entire nation, just as Barack Obama was throughout his run for the Presidency.