Muhammad Ali died on Friday, June 3rd, at the age of 74.
In the days leading up to his final fight, Ali deflected worried questions about his age and his legacy.
It was 1981, and he was 39 years old. The man who declared himself the greatest, the king of the world, could have walked away, stayed away, and no one would have questioned whether the three-time World Champion had proven his dominance time and again.
But Ali was back to prove it once more. He was up against Trevor Berbick this time, a 27-year-old whom Ali would have toyed with in his prime. A year earlier, coming out of a brief retirement, Ali had fallen to Larry Holmes. He blamed the fall on thyroid pills he’d taken to cut his rising weight.
Ali’s perfect body was breaking down. His quick-hopping feet were slow dancing now.
Why fight again?
“I see the overall picture,” he said, looking a reporter in the eye. “Write this down. The price of certainty of being the greatest is a constant assault on my own personality and ability.”
Then, leaning back, he whispered: “Not because I’m broke. Not because I miss the limelight. Not because anybody makes me. It’s just the idea. Four times a champ…”
Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1942. His father was a house painter, his mother was a domestic worker. In Louisville, a horse-breeding community, black people were expected to serve quietly. Cassius Clay spoke up.
“I remember one time when Cassius was small,” his mother later recalled in Thomas Hauser’s The Importance of Muhammad Ali. “We were downtown at a five-and-ten-cents store. He wanted a drink of water, and they wouldn’t give him one because of his colour. That really affected him. He didn’t like that at all, being a child and thirsty. He started crying, and I said, ‘Come on; I’ll take you someplace and get you some water.’ But it really hurt him.”
Another injustice led Clay to boxing. Joe Martin, a Louisville police officer, taught Clay how to fight after his bike was stolen when he was 12. A few years later, the world took notice. At 18, Clay won a gold medal at the politically charged 1960 Olympics in Rome. Gold medal dangling proudly from his neck, Ali’s unique charisma flashed for reporters crowded into a press conference:
“To make America the greatest is my goal
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole
And for the USA won the Medal of Gold.
Italians said, ‘You’re greater than the Cassius of old.’”
Clay wore the medal around his neck for days. But, still sporting his prize, he was denied service at a Louisville restaurant. That medal, he later said, quickly found a home at the bottom of the Ohio River.
Defiance drove him. From the start Clay was punching well beyond the confines of the ring. Before his first title shot against Sonny Liston in 1964, he asked reporters:
“Where do you think I’d be next week if I didn’t know how to shout and holler and make the public take notice? I’d be poor and I’d probably be down in my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yassuh’ and ‘nawsuh’ and knowing my place.”
During the weigh-in before that first title fight, Clay quipped a line that became his trademark, telling the world that he would: “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
Two days after his upset over Liston, the quick-witted, lyrical, confident and political Clay joined the Nation of Islam and changed his named to Muhammad Ali.
He’d fight Liston again in 1965, and again he won (though with a controversial knockout, known as the “phantom punch,” over which he forever suffered whispers that Liston threw the fight). Ali had befriended Malcolm X, and his relationship with a group viewed as extremist made the boxer a target of the press and public. The New York Times continued to print his name as Clay, and many in the boxing world refused to acknowledge his change.
“What’s my name? What’s my name?” Ali taunted Ernie Terrell, who had refused to call him Ali, as he pummelled him through 15 controversial rounds in title match in 1967. Ali danced and hopped through the one-sided bout. The press went wild with criticism of Ali’s vicious, arrogant show.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with those Viet Cong,” he said, after refusing to the join the war in Vietnam in 1967, declaring himself a conscientious objector. “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
Ali’s very public objections to the Vietnam war and his refusal to fight under the name Clay—which he called a “slave name”—made the him an icon of a rebellious and formative time in American history. For his public defiance, Ali was found guilty of refusing induction into the Armed Forces. He was stripped of his championship belt, and banned from boxing for three years.
“Here’s a man who was at the top of his game and voluntarily gave that up because he placed principal above everything,” said Julian Bond, a prominent American civil rights leader and academic who died in 2015.
Bond said Ali became a political inspiration for people young and old. His reach went beyond North America, reaching into Africa where many found a hero in a black, proudly Muslim, champion.
“His was a worldwide fame,” said Bond, the former chairman of the NAACP. “What he did and said reverberated everywhere.”
Ali was not an organizing figure of the Civil Rights movement. He wasn’t leading marches or organizing protests. But everything he said or did had a global audience.
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me,” Ali once said. “Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
Legendary sports broadcaster Howard Cosell linked Ali’s connection to a period filled with riots, assassinations and war:
“That time period was incredible, and Ali understood it; he was at the heart of [a] violent, turbulent, almost indecipherable time in America, and Ali was in all of those fires at once; he helped shape it.”
Ali was one of the first, and one of the few, prominent athletes to use their platform to speak openly and boldly about politics and social justice.
“Many [athletes] then, and even more so today, act as if politics didn’t affect them in any kind of way. In some way it’s shameful today. But he had the courage, at great risk to his own career, to speak out and be heard,” said Bond.
Ali returned to the ring in 1970, and took on Joe Frazier the following year, in what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” Frazier knocked Ali down after 15 rounds. Three years later, Ali beat Frazier in a rematch, setting up his famous bout against George Foreman in Zaire, dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle.” Foreman was the heavyweight champion at the time, but Ali was the people’s hero. Chants of “Ali Buma Ye! Ali Buma Ye! ” followed him through Kinshasa—“Ali kill him! Ali kill him!”
Ali used his rope-a-dope technique, leaning against the ropes to soften the blows and tiring out the powerful, younger fighter. He didn’t kill Foreman, but he did recapture his long-lost heavyweight title, sending the defeated Foreman into a two-year depression.
“I felt like I lost everything. Not just the championship of the world, but I’d lost myself as a man,” Foreman explained years later in a documentary called Facing Ali.
Ali’s legacy in the ring continued the following year, when he faced his long-time foe Joe Frazier for a third time. The “Thrilla in Manila,” held in Quezon City, Philippines, went 14 of the most memorable rounds in boxing history. In the end, Frazier’s corner called the fight for the battered and bleeding boxer. Later Ali admitted he was moments from calling the fight himself.
This was the pinnacle for the man nicknamed the “Greatest.” He fell to Leon Spinks in 1978, losing his title, then won it back from him a year later and promptly retired from boxing.
But then, in 1980, Ali came back again, looking to win the world heavyweight title for a record fourth time. He was outmatched and beaten by Larry Holmes. Ali’s lifelong trainer Angelo Dundee refused to let him come out for the 11th round.
In 1981, at 39 years old, Ali fought Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
“The price of certainty of being the greatest is a constant assault on my own personality and ability,” he had said.
By now the assault had outdone him. Ali, the greatest, lost to an inferior—but far younger and stronger—fighter in 10 rounds. It would Berbick’s most famous victory, before his own life spiralled into tragedy.
Betrayed by a body that had seemed immortal, Ali retired the following day. In 1984 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But his fighting spirit never quit. For nearly three decades, he worked to raise money for Parkinson’s research. He supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He travelled to countries like Mexico, Morocco and Afghanistan to help and inspire wherever he could.
In 1998, Ali was chosen to be the United Nations Messenger of Peace, for his work in developing nations. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He received the President’s Award from the NAACP for public service, and attended the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama.
Post-boxing, the world learned more about Ali the man. Hana Yasmeen Ali, one of the fighter’s nine children from his four marriages, recalled him in her book as a loving, dedicated father who would read to her before bed.
“It was not my father’s heavyweight championships that made him great; it was not his Olympic success, or his victory over the government,” Hana wrote. “His greatness lies in his ability to keep love in his heart through the upheavals of life. His greatness is in his courage, it’s in his strength, and it’s in his compassion.”
Ali’s connection with children was also recalled by Bond, who recounted bringing his own children to meet the boxer in the ’70s, and the instant, genuine connection the boxer had with them.
Ali the boxer left the ring defeated in 1981. He was a three-time world champion; the greatest of all time. But his purpose always seemed larger than the sweet science itself.
The late sportswriter George Plimpton once recalled Ali speaking to an audience at Harvard University. He was asked to recite one of his famous poems, and Ali paused for a moment, then said: “Me, we.”
Sitting in front of a documentary camera, Plimpton paused thoughtfully and then echoed those words: “Me, we,” he said. “What fighter he was. And what a man.”