Muhammad Ali holds many accolades. Hailed as “The Greatest,” Ali first shot to fame after winning a gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He was the first boxer to win three world heavyweight titles, a feat which led him to be named “Sportsman of the Century,” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC. But Ali’s achievements extend beyond the ring, as he emerged as a formidable figure in the civil rights movement. August Man pays tribute to the legendary sportsman with a look back at his life and the way he impacted the world. Here are five things that will continue to inspire us.
1. He didn’t back down, even as a child.
When he was just 12, Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay Jr, had his bike stolen. Furious, he swore to beat up whoever was responsible for the crime. As fate would have it, the police officer at the time was Joe Martin, who happened to be a boxing trainer as well. Martin suggested that the young Clay take up boxing, saying “you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people.” He began training the young Clay himself. Six weeks later he won his first fight though by split decision.
“I hated every minute of training, but I said, don’t quite, suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”
2. What’s in a name?
Though he was named after an abolitionist Cassius Marcellous Clay, Clay Jr changed it after joining the Black Muslim group, the Nation of Islam. By discarding his given name, Clay Jr rejected what he described as his “slave name.” From Cassius Clay Jr, he became Cassius X, the “X” given to him by Malcolm X. He later became Muhammad Ali after he was given the name Muhammad by Elijah Muhammad, who led the Nation of Islam.
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name, and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.”
3. He stood up for his beliefs.
Ali sacrificed three years of professional career because he refused to serve during the Vietnam War. Though he had an IQ score of 78, originally said as being too low for the draft, Ali became eligible for enlistment after the law changed in 1966. He refused saying he was a “conscientious objector,” citing his faith and membership in the Nation of Islam. Already controversial following his name-change, Muhammad Ali now faced the brunt of public opinion. He was arrested, stripped of his state titles and suspended. He was given opportunities to retract but remain steadfast. As his financial situation worsened because of mounting legal debt and the inability to box, Ali began giving hundreds of speeches at college campuses, where the anti-war sentiment was growing. Finally in 1971, Ali’s conviction was overturned by the Court of Appeal. He has continued to speak out, most recently against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, saying, “We as Muslims have to stand up to those who use Islam to advance their own personal agenda.”
“I won’t be used by powerful white men as a tool to kill other people who are fighting for their own beliefs and freedoms, and neither should you, especially if you’re poor and/or black.”
4. Ali, the philantrophist.
After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Ali immersed himself in philanthropy. He raised funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center and supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Following his work in numerous developing nations, Ali became a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998. In 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush.
“Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”
5. He created one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history.
Muhammad Ali’s lighting of the Olympic torch, 36 years after he won his gold medal, during the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, is said to one of the most poignant in Olympic history. Afflicted by Parkinson’s, the image of Ali, shaking, as he bent down to light a small rocket, touched many. He received the flame from swimmer Janet Evans, who has since declared that she would give up all her five medals to live that moment one more time. While receiving the flame, a screen displayed all that Ali had achieved as an athlete and a humanitarian. Ali made another appearance at the 2012 Opening Ceremony in London where he was one of eight people chosen to carry the Olympic Flag.
“Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them-a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”