“I wanted to use my fame and this face that everyone knows so well to help uplift and inspire people around the world.” – Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali was the most important athlete who ever lived; the most influential athlete; simply “The Greatest” of all time.
Ali was like a million different people wrapped up into one “pretty” six-foot-three-inch, 210-pound frame; a destroyer inside the ring and a humanitarian outside it. Someone who lived on his own terms and accomplished just about everything a man could, from winning an Olympic gold medal and the world heavyweight title (three times), to standing up to his own government and freeing hostages in Iraq.
“I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
Ali talked the talk and walked the walk, said what was on his mind, marched to his own beat, and did not care about any possible repercussions, all the while creating enemies both inside the ring and outside it. At the height of the civil rights movement, Ali was breaking barriers, joining the Nation of Islam, destroying all of his opponents, and eventually, telling the United States government to kick rocks, because he “got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”
The stance that 25-year-old, undefeated heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali took in 1967—by refusing to fight in Vietnam—was nothing short of heroic, and there will never be another athlete to make the sacrifice he did, especially in the prime of his or her career. His legendary speech mirrored his boxing, in which it was calculated, strategic, and powerful:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
It goes without saying that there will never be another boxer like Ali. He’d dance and prance around the ring like a lightweight, despite being 200-plus pounds. He’d talk trash before, during and after a fight, get under the skin of his opponents, and more often than not, call his own shots.
On Feb. 25, 1964, in his first title fight against Sonny Liston, the baby-faced 22-year-old looked so incredibly calm, keeping his hands down and dodging the champion’s shots with ease. He made it look so easy at times throughout his career, and his trilogy with Joe Frazier (“The Fight of the Century,” “Ali-Frazier II,” and the “Thrilla in Manila”) ranks as arguably the greatest series of events in the history of sports. Ali would finish his career 56-5, going down as the only three-time lineal world heavyweight champion (1964, 1974, and 1978). He was as good a fighter as he was an entertainer:
“I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing, and the shadow won.”
“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”
“I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
“I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ’em out, I pick the round.”
“I’m the most recognized and loved man that ever lived cuz there weren’t no satellites when Jesus and Moses were around, so people far away in the villages didn’t know about them.”
“When I’m gone, boxing will be nothing again. The fans with the cigars and the hats turned down’ll be there, but no more housewives and little men in the street and foreign presidents. It’s goin’ to be back to the fighter who comes to town, smells a flower, visits a hospital, blows a horn and says he’s in shape. Old hat. I was the onliest boxer in history people asked questions like a senator.”
“People don’t realize what they had till it’s gone. Like President Kennedy, there was no one like him, the Beatles, and my man Elvis Presley. I was the Elvis of boxing.”
Above all, I’ll never forget watching Muhammad Ali light the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, 36 years after winning the light heavyweight gold medal in Rome and 12 years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
He was an inspiration to us all.
(Click the images below to read our 1980 interview with “The Greatest”)