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‘The Greatest’

/ 08:48 PM February 25, 2012

In an era when the heavyweight ring was the No. 1 stage of sports, Muhammad Ali was the brightest name and the mightiest fighter. At a recent party to mark his 70th birthday, the stars in the firmament of sports came to pay homage to the very definition of the word “sportsman,” transformed into one more than an athlete, injecting athletic pursuit with purpose and meaning.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on Jan. 17, 1942, Ali rose through the amateur ranks in fiery fashion, winning a gold medal in the Rome Olympics of 1960. But it was the boxer he evolved into that made him a star. He turned professional later that year, and what followed was a boxing career that remains unmatched in many ways. Fleet of foot and fast with his fists, he tore through the pro ranks, becoming a champion by dropping Sonny Liston in 1964 and remaining undefeated. He fought all of boxing’s most formidable exemplars – and beat them all.

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During that time, he became known for his flamboyance and artistry; he would later refer to himself as Elvis in the ring. Away from the ring, he liked to psych his opponent by dishing out koan-like passages about them. His larger-than-life persona produced his most memorable line about his style: “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”

But it was words of another sort that proved Ali to be truly different from other athletes. In the late 1960s, when the United States was neck-deep in the Vietnam War, he refused to heed his draft notice, proclaiming himself a conscientious objector and saying: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” His refusal to fight, ironically, led to his conviction of draft evasion as well as the suspension of his license.

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The conviction was later reversed and Ali returned to the ring, and he continued to stand his ground despite massive pressure and threats to his pugilistic career. With these acts, he proved that athletes could be more than competitors, that they could be symbols of what they believed in. In the process, he became sports’ most polarizing figure: Either you loved him or you hated him.

That became most obvious when he converted to the Nation of Islam, changing his name to the now iconic Muhammad Ali. He did so at a time when many were suspicious of the religion, but, like his opposition to the Vietnam War, he fought for his beliefs, eventually becoming Islam’s most familiar international icon and arguably the most loved. In so doing, he also stood up for the rights of African-Americans everywhere, proving that one did not have to conform or follow the legacy of Jim Crow. He was the black champion who never shied away from being black. (Decades later, Tiger Woods would be heralded as a victorious symbol by African-Americans, but he never courted controversy by being outspoken about what he believed in. A dazzling talent, Woods was also a cipher, almost a black symbol by default. He was everything Ali was not.)

Now an international superstar, Ali remained fearsome in the ring. His most famous rivalry was that with Joe Frazier, whom he fought three times. The third was the charm and became indelible in many Filipinos’ minds – “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975. The brutal fight lasted 15 rounds but Ali emerged victorious. Today, a mall in Quezon City still bears his name.

Ali would go on to fight for only six more years as age and the battering he had taken eventually caught up with him. He retired in 1981 with a record of 56 wins (37 by way of knockout) and five losses. But he was always more than just the sum of his victories and defeats.

In the years after his retirement from boxing, Ali would remain busy, using his celebrity to help out in humanitarian causes and as an ambassador of peace for the United Nations. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, most likely caused by his time in the ring. But though slowed by it, he was not defeated by it; he continues to burnish his legacy by fighting against it, lending a famous face to battling the terrible affliction.

And he is now a man in full at 70, a man who not only made so many things possible for today’s athletes and people of color everywhere but also showed that one can stand for peace even in the ring and still fight for all that one stands for out of it.

Muhammad Ali showed how an athlete can be a potent symbol. That is his true legacy and why he will always be, in so many ways and in so many hearts, “The Greatest.”

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TAGS: Boxing, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Editorial, Muhammad Ali, opinion, sports, The Greatest
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