Muhammad Ali was the most prolific boxer of all time. The fights were beyond legendary. Ali-Frazier, Ali-Foreman; the fights were so good every single one had a nickname like “The Fight of the Century” or “The Thrilla in Manilla.”
Believe it or not, it was a time where the nicknames of the fight actually lived up to the billing.
I know, what a concept.
Ali’s style, his swagger and his bravado were one of a kind in the ring and captivated American audiences for over two decades.
His fighting prowess was unbelievable, but what makes Ali this larger-than-life figure is the way he transcended American culture.
He was one of the first athletes to tie entertainment, pop culture and, yes, activism into the sports world.
Ali’s transformation into a cultural icon was due to some of the unbelievable bravery he showed out of the ring at a very tumultuous time in our nation’s history.
In fact in the mid 1960’s, Ali’s legacy was very polarizing.
Shortly after winning the heavyweight championship of the world in a stunning upset over Sonny Liston, then-Cassius Clay converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali as a form of protest against what he believed was “his slave name.”
Ali became an active member of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.
I learned so much about what Ali meant to the 1960’s in writing my term paper to complete my minor in history at Syracuse.
I never in a million years thought Muhammad Ali’s beliefs would have such a profound impact on popular opinion towards the Vietnam War.
In researching the conflict, I learned quite quickly how significant his anti-war stance truly was.
Ali, like many Americans in this country, was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.
Ali could have easily served for three years, never put himself in harm’s way and avoided any controversy.
It would’ve been the easy way out, but that’s not Muhammad Ali.
Ali refused to be drafted into the military and was stripped of his heavyweight title.
Think about that for a minute: an athlete in the prime of his career deciding that fighting against the Vietnam War was more important than his boxing livelihood.
It’s essentially the equivalent of Lebron James or Aaron Rodgers walking away from their sport to protest what was going on in the world.
Whether you agree with Ali’s decision to fight the war or not, it’s hard not to respect his bravery.
Ali put his personal beliefs and convictions ahead of his career and his public persona because he believed it was the right thing to do.
As time went on, Ali’s controversial decision to sit out of the Vietnam War eventually became praised because he was on the right side of history.
Throughout the 70’s and into the early 80’s, Ali was front and center of almost every United States television.
His appearances with Howard Cosell on the Wide World of Sports provided a platform for two unbelievable personalities to perform for the nation.
Ali transcended sports, he transcended America and was a worldwide icon.
Although Parkinson’s disease hit Ali hard over the last 25 years, his bravery stood out till the end.
I remember Ali lighting the Olympic Torch in Atlanta in 1996 and throwing out the first pitch at the debut of the Marlins new stadium in 2011, and I appreciate the fact that even with a dreaded disease, he still wanted to be an active participant in sports, society and American life.
Ali’s impact will live on forever. When you watch Cam Newton dab this football season or watch Stephen Curry dance after a three-point shot, think of Ali.
He was the first athlete to display the sort of showmanship that is seen throughout the world of sports these days.
The skill, the swagger and of course that bubbly personality. He had it all.
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Rest in peace champ.
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