By the time I discovered boxing as a young man, Muhammad Ali was already retired and far removed from the fiery militant image of his youth. Still, what he represented to me and several Black youth in the United States remained steadfast despite the decline of his formidable physical gifts. Ali’s path to greatness began in the ring, but his legacy was continually affirmed outside of it.
The path to self-discovery for many comes via an outside stimulus or disturbance. The environment in which one is raised informs how that person will respond and react to negative and positive situations. America’s racist past and the rise of the Civil Rights Movement were opposite sides of a coin, forever enjoined and imbalanced in the favor of power-mad whites who failed to fathom the worth of people who didn’t look like them. Ali’s path was littered with roadblocks because of this imbalance, from his humble Louisville beginnings until the highest heights and lows of his fame, yet he remained graceful in the end.
When he was a young man under another name, Ali took the amateur boxing world by storm en route to six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles and a Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics. With 100 wins and just five losses, Ali was a dominant force by way of his lightning speed and length.
He was also brash, and wouldn’t allow himself to be muted by the white power structure who saw him as nothing more than a brute. Part of Ali’s appeal as a fighter was that he was light on his feet at his size, dazzling, entertaining and a walking soundbite for media. That same personality also gave way to criticism and racist jeering, all of which seemed to fuel Ali to speak even louder.
As he pounded a series of opponents in the early 1960s ahead of winning the world title in 1964 in Miami Beach, Fla. over the fearsome Sonny Liston. Ali’s pummeling of the champion, along with a series of well-timed taunts, became the stuff of legend. The infamous quote, “I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived” was born that day, which Ali shouted to reporters at ringside after he was declared an underdog.
It was also the start of the transformation of Ali, who announced his ties to the Nation of Islam the day after the fight. Emboldened by his alliance with NOI leader The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and National Spokesman Malcolm X, Ali too became a vocal champion of Black equality while continuing to dismantle opponents in the ring who refused to acknowledge his faith and respect his skill level. The media painted Ali as cruel and barbaric, a fighter who prolonged matches to beat down his opponents and belittle them. Even if that was the case, the humiliation, insults and disrespect Ali faced from Blacks and whites alike made his showboating justifiable.
After Ali’s refusal to enter the draft for the Vietnam War, the powers that be once again tried to strip him of his humanity and livelihood, canceling his boxing licenses across the nation. From 1967 to 1970, Ali didn’t fight and was instead involved in several court battles over his right to object the war and to return to his profession. That steadfast devotion to his convictions is once more confirmation of the character that Ali possessed.
The fights that came after are perhaps the greatest of Ali’s career but they’re well-documented. The losses he suffered and his financial woes were also front and center during the early to late 1970s. However, other facts have been buried under the weight of time.
In 1985, a year after Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, he traveled to Lebanon on a peace mission to free 40 American hostages. This was a far cry from the outspoken Ali of the previous decades. He was now a humanitarian attempting to use his notoriety for good. And while the mission was largely unsuccessful despite the escape or release of hostage Jeremy Levin, which was reportedly influenced by Ali, it would give way to similar effort five years later.
In 1990, Ali traveled to Iraq in November 1990 during the conflict in Kuwait. Saddam Hussein captured thousands of hostages during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait but kept 15 American hostages as insurance after the late leader was ordered to vacate the country by the United Nations. The men, all civilians, were unaware that Ali was in Baghdad on their behalf. During his visit in Iraq, Ali greeted anyone who came up to him and graciously signed everything thrust his way.
Ali prayed alongside his fellow Muslims and spoke against the impending bells of war. The champ’s health began to fail him after he ran out of medicine to treat his condition, which led to a meeting between him and Hussein at an open press conference. After the November 29 meeting, Ali left Iraq with all 15 hostages in tow. Although hobbled by Parkinson’s and barely able to stand, Ali was still an imposing figure undergoing a different type of bout.
It was not done with fanfare and it was panned by the United States press as a failed lesson in diplomacy among other choice terms. Ali undertook the thankless task because it was the right thing to do with his fame and it was informed by his unshakeable faith. That same resiliency he once showed in the ring despite all odds became what fortified him outside of it. He was beloved. He was charismatic even in silence. He was and he is still Ali.
Muhammad Ali was more than a boxer, and history should make certain to hammer this point home. He was a man from Kentucky who became an icon to the world. He spoke loudly with his voice, and even louder with his fists. But his quiet descent to stillness, to peace, that is what we should honor and remember most.
Rest Powerfully in Peace, Muhammad Ali.
Photo: By Unknown –  Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989 bekijk toegang 2.24.01.04 Bestanddeelnummer 924-3060, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37191915