The Greatest. The Louisville Lip. The People’s Champion. Cassius Clay went by many a name throughout his life but the one that he was most recognized by in all aspects was the one that he chose when he converted to the Nation of Islam shortly after the start of his career. Muhammad Ali was a sight to behold in his fighting style, in his self-promotional style and few have been able to rival his ability to astound and entertain. He is referenced time and time again in all modes of pop culture including music, art, books, comics, theaters and television and movies. His taunting mockery of his opponents incorporated verbal jabs, rhymes and fake swats at the air. His larger than life personality was brash and loud and acted as the best marketing tool available. Many have attempted to mimic and emulate his manner but none come close as is exemplified in his interminable relevance.
His ego did eventually get in his way in terms of how he conducted himself, his confrontational approach to authority and his stubborn refusal to compromise. In the end, he faced incarceration, was banned from the sport and stripped of his championship designation, all due to his political stance against the war in Vietnam. He attributed his adamant refusal to participate on draft was based on his Islamic beliefs and was found guilty of draft evasion, a conviction which he appealed right up to the Supreme Court where the decision was overturned. Ali’s premise was firm, well thought out and articulate and he called to question a number of reasons for the war as a whole. While this was Ali’s most controversial move and didn’t win him any popularity with conservative thinkers, it certainly made him something of an antihero with the counterculture objectors of the 60’s and 70’s. Agree or disagree, the fight in itself was one of Ali’s finest and will go down in American history.
Meanwhile, back in the boxing world, Ali’s career had been derailed by this action right in his prime years and his time ousted from boxing set him back to a certain degree. He returned to the ring and focused to regain his footing and quickly remerged as a force to be reckoned with, beating all comers.
His fights were always touted with great names such as the Thrilla in Manila where he defeated Smokin’ Joe Frazier or the Rumble in the Jungle in Africa where he danced his way into legendary boxing status by dismantling George Forman of the same title that had been stripped from him earlier. The fight in Africa elevated him with the locals where they roamed the streets chanting his name. Repeatedly, Ali earned his nickname “The Greatest” which he had bestowed upon himself.
Ali held the Heavyweight Championship through a period in boxing where it was absolutely replete with stringent competition. Aside from Frazier and Foreman, Ali faced Sonny Liston, Leon Spinks and Ken Norton, all primo fighters, among numerous others. He avenged losses against Frazier, Spinks and Norton in rematched but by the end of his career, he succumbed to the ravages of time on his strength and lost his last two bouts. Ali retired at 39 in 1981.
In 1984, Ali discovered that he was living with Parkinson’s, attributed in part to many of the blows delivered upon him throughout his career. The Greatest is still alive today at 72 and recently tweeted MMA President a picture of himself fighting in 1976 with the hashtag original MMA fighter. Still cheeky as ever.
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