He shook up the world.
And that probably meant as much to Muhammad Ali as anything.
He became a citizen of the world, recognized everywhere, beloved on every continent. He brought joy, goodwill, and hope wherever he went.
And yet, to a few, he always remained a loud-mouthed draft dodger.
“Ali was as polarizing a superstar as the sports world has ever produced,” wrote Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times. “Both admired and vilified in the 1960s and ‘70s for his religious, political and social stances.
“His refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War, his rejection of racial integration at the height of the civil rights movement, his conversion from Christianity to Islam and the changing of his “slave” name, Cassius Clay, to one bestowed by the separatist black sect he joined, the Lost/Found Nation of Islam, were perceived as serious threats by the conservative establishment, and noble acts of defiance by the liberal opposition.”
But by the time he stood, alone and shaking, holding the flame to ignite the Olympic cauldron in 1996, he had become a universally admired figure, adored for a life spent espousing peace, brotherhood, and freedom.
“He was such a great man, boxing should be the last thing you want to remember about him,” George Foreman, the former heavyweight champion, told USA Today sports.
“The rest of us were just boxers,” Foreman continued. “This man brought something (far greater)…I think Ali was basically misunderstood. He didn’t want to make any political statement. He just wanted to be recognized as a man. It’s really that simple. ‘Just let me eat and sleep where I want.’”
When he returned from the 1960 Olympics as the light-heavyweight gold medalist, he still faced segregation in his hometown of Louisville. We have trouble identifying with that issue today.
Likewise, we have trouble recalling just how divisive the Vietnam War was, how it nearly tore this country in half. Hard to remember a time when people took to the streets for what they believed in.
Suddenly, here was the heavyweight champion of the world, all of 25 years old, thrust onto center stage. He didn’t dodge the draft. He appeared before the board at the appointed hour, declared himself to be a conscientious objector, and refused to be inducted into the army.
Had he been Amish, the story would have ended right there. But Ali’s status was denied. As he explained, “I ain’t got nothin’ against them Vietcong.”
Often unquoted is the rest of his explanation. “No Vietcong ever called me [n-word]. They never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me.”
He made us pause and think about how things were going down in this country. His was one of many voices that helped lead this country back on the right path.
Ali paid dearly for standing up for his beliefs. He surrendered three and a half years in the prime of his career by staying true to his principles. Eventually, the United States Supreme Court agreed with him.
Ali wasn’t perfect, of course. He moved on to a more moderate form of Islam. He carried Floyd Patterson in the ring, choosing to punish him rather than knock him out. Ali perceived Patterson to be, in the parlance of the day, an “Uncle Tom.”
Later, Ernie Terrell would only refer to Ali by his former name. With every jab he threw, Ali asked, “What’s my name?” Pop! “What’s my name?” Pop! Then, he referred to his greatest foil, Joe Frazier, as “a big gorilla, too ugly to be champion.”
“We forgive Muhammad Ali his excesses because we see in him the child in us,” his biographer, Dave Kindred, has written. “And if he is foolish or cruel, if he is arrogant, if he is outrageously in love with his reflection, we forgive him because we no more can condemn him than condemn a rainbow for dissolving into the dark.
“Rainbows are born of thunderstorms, and Muhammad Ali is both.”
Boxing provided Ali with his bully pulpit, and he’d have never reached so many, and accomplished so much good outside the ring, had he not been so proficient inside it.
From his very first title bout, against the ferocious Sonny Liston in 1964, Ali showed us something we’d never seen before: a heavyweight who could box and dance like a welterweight.
But his fight against Foreman 10 years later, the Rumble in the Jungle, remains the most amazing feat of athletic prowess I have ever witnessed.
Foreman was 40-0, and had just knocked out Frazier in less than two rounds. One punch actually lifted Frazier right off the canvas.
So Ali let Foreman hit him. He leaned back against the ropes, absorbed hundreds of punches, and kept asking, “That all you got, George?”
In the eighth round, after Foreman had punched himself out, Ali carved him up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Then Ali leaned over the ropes to the reporters below and said, “What did I tell you?”
He'll always be The Champ to me.
He shook up the world.