“I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, I pick the round”. Mohammad Ali, born as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, can be described as one of the most iconic, recognizable, yet controversial figure of the 20th Century. He is a boxer of international fame, having won the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship, thrice, the North American Boxing Federation Championship and an Olympic gold medal.
Ali was named after his father Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. He changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam and subsequently converting his faith to Sunni Islam, in 1975. He said, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.” His conversion and refusal to respond to his original name filled Ali’s personal life with controversy. He was essentially banned from fighting in the United States and forced to accept bouts abroad for most of 1966.
Ali was crowned as the “Sportsman of the century” by Sports Illustrated, in 1999. As tall as 6’3” (1.91m), Ali is known for his distinguished style, as a heavyweight boxer. He relies on his ability to defend, with a punch, instead of raising his hands high, to guard his face, which is the normal boxing style followed by most. He won his first professional fight on October 29, 1960 in Louisville, and there was no looking back after that. Ali was known to be confident of his victories even prior to the match and is famous for his one liners such as: “your hand can’t hit what your eyes can’t see” and “float like a butterfly & sting like a bee”.
The Vietnam War put a hurdle to Ali’s career. He refused to serve the United States Army, during the war, as the idea of war, in general, was objectionable to him. Also, as a follower of Islam, he declined any war that was not declared by Allah or ‘the messenger’. Ali is also known to have said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” Ali became a target of outrage and suspicion for aligning himself with the Nation of Islam and refusing to do military service. Sometimes, it even seemed that he was provoking such reactions by his outspokenness and point of view, which wavered from civil rights to separatism.
This kind of behavior stripped Ali of his title, as a professional boxer, at the end of 1967. He was not allowed to fight, professionally, for more than three years. He was also convicted, for refusing induction into the army, with a sentence of five years in prison.
1970 saw Ali’s comeback, as he was able to get his license back. A fight on March 8, 1971, was named as the ‘fight of the century’. Two undefeated and super-skilled boxers were engaged in a bout on Madison Square Garden. Both Ali & Frazier had reasonable claim to the heavyweight crown, but it was finally won by Frazier. This was Ali’s first major professional loss, attributed to his ‘ring-rusting’ caused by his lay-off in the past few years.
In the 1980s, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which eventually slowed his movements and reflexes. By late 2005 Ali’s condition had considerably worsened. and he retired from boxing..
Since the time Ali retired he has won many prestigious awards and recognitions, for his notable contribution to boxing. He is a beloved and active public figure and his disabilities do not prevent his enthusiastic participation in these activities. He was awarded with the ‘Spirit of America’ award for the most recognized American in the world, in 1991. A biographical movie has been made on him with Will Smith starring in it.
Ali is now a devoted Sunni Muslim, traveling across nations, more than 200 days annually, to help people suffering from poverty and hunger. He also promotes education and encourages adoption. Ali is a true humanitarian.
It would not be wrong to say that Ali has made, and will continue to make, the most of his life. He is a living legend and his accomplishments are a lesson for the younger generations.
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