There are certain figures who are, for whatever reason, transcendent. For instance, people knew who Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan were, even if they didn’t follow baseball or basketball. Muhammad Ali was, and is, like that. In a period when the heavyweight championship of boxing still was culturally significant, before an alphabet soup of different boxing authorities stripped the championship of any lasting meaning, Ali was most noteworthy.
I remember that it was the conventional wisdom that Clay could not possibly beat champion Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964, a fight I recall hearing on the radio. Yet, Clay prevailed.
Shortly after the fight, he announced his conversion to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ultimately, it was that conversion, scorned by some opponents who kept referring to him by what he called his “slave name”, that was the gateway to the next phase of his life: being stripped of his boxing crown and even his boxing license in 1967 for his “refusal to be conscripted into the U.S. military, based on his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War.” This was a momentous event, which “inspired Martin Luther King Jr. – who had been reluctant to alienate the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda – to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.” Ultimately, Ali won his US Supreme Court case, but not before he lost nearly four years working at his chosen profession.
This set the stage for three epic fights with the late Joe Frazier, who died late last year. In 1971, Frazier became the first fighter to defeat Ali then “lost two epic rematches including a ferocious battle known as the ‘Thrilla in Manila.'” Ali went on to have another stretch of boxing success. He has regularly been named one of the top one or two boxers of all time.
But it wasn’t just his boxing prowess. It was the poetry of his boxing style, which he described as “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”.
And it was his name change. Lots of actors have changed their name, but Ali’s action gave other athletes, such as Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, permission to do likewise. Whatever one thought of the theatrical arguing between Ali and ABC Sports’ Howard Cosell, I always liked Cosell because he always called Ali by the name he wished to be called.
I was awestruck at the 1996 Olympics when it was the Parkinson’s disease-riddled Ali who had the honor of lighting the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. One of my favorite Ali memories was when he and his fourth wife, Yolanda, wife were being interviewed by the late Ed Bradley of 60 Minutes.
Happy birthday, Muhammad.