Muhammad Ali, the former heavyweight champion, humanitarian and athletic marvel passed away on Friday night (June 3) after a recent bout of respiratory problems hospitalized the boxing legend. He was 74.
Ali was a champion before any belt adorned his trim waist.
He was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky, named after his father, who himself was named after a politician and abolitionist. The duality that his moniker signified would long be a hallmark in his life. A precocious child, he stumbled into boxing, as the story goes, when his anger boiled over at his bike being stolen. A young Clay told a police officer he wanted to "whup" whoever stole his property; instead, he was advised to channel that anger into the boxing ring.
Clay was a natural and rose to prominence quickly: he stockpiled local Golden Glove honors before notching national recognition. The young boxer reached his early zenith in 1960 at the Summer Olympics.
Although the story of what happened to his medal, a gold for his light heavyweight dominance, is unclear—Did he lose it? Did he throw it in the river after being refused service at a restaurant because of his race?—there's no denying he was on America's radar after his performance in Rome.
His trademark style emerged, lighting quick jabs and even faster feet paired with an ability to throw a heavy hook and also take one to the chin. Clay began his professional career 19-0, with wins by knockout and a few knockdowns from his opponents. And, of course, his vocal poetics, which critics railed against as demeaning and baseless. Sure, Clay could toss around the occasional use of the word bum or even worse. Like a Nas, Rakim or J.Cole, MC's undoubtedly influenced by his audible instincts, it took for major events, with writers journaling for the record, for the pugilist to be at his best.
In this case, that would be in Miami, in the ring, against the baddest MFer in the game: The Big Bear, Sonny Liston.
Heard the line "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee" before? It's so common now, right? But, do you remember when you first heard Biggie flip Bone Thugs' flow? Or when Big Daddy Kane ate more bars than a chocolate-loving fat kid on that "Symphony" verse? Or the night Kendrick Lamar unleashed his "Control" fury?
Yeah, that's what this guy was like with his biting lines; like all three of the previous instances balled into one.
No one ever saw anything like it before, including Liston. The heavy favorite was no match for the upstart, who dominated most of the rounds and won by TKO. "I shook up the world," a victorious Clay told the press.
He was just 22.
This was when Clay also started to find his true self; or, at least, display it publicly. He studied Islam and a week after his (then) crowning achievement he became a Muslim. He chose a new name, Muhammad Ali, with the first name meaning one worthy of praise and the last name representing a cousin to a prophet.
As Ali, the boxer's fame, influence and orbit of controversy around him only grew.
He quickly dispatched of Liston in a rematch, of which had been documented in one of sports' most-famed photographs.
Ali emerged as a storied figure, a symbol of grace, strength and resolve, at a time when America was fractured. The champ spoke out against the Vietnam War, saying "no Vietcong ever called me nigger," which combined with his refusal to join the military draft, painted Ali as unpatriotic. Young protestors, on the other hand, gravitated toward Ali and he emerged as a influential voice against the war, appearing on television and at colleges to give his speeches on the politics of our country.
This period also reflected a large duration of inactivity in which Ali didn't box competitively for three years after a ban from the professional ranks and a threat by the government to jail him over his beliefs.
Eventually, he made his way back into the ring in 1970 and spent the decade engaged in his epic bouts with Joe Frazier, including the Fight of the Century. The Rumble in the Jungle, Thrilla in Manilla and his charismatic exchanges with Howard Cosell would soon follow. He would go on to become the first three-time heavyweight champion.
His toughest opponent, though, was on the horizon.
In 1984, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's. The disease would go on to rob Ali of his booming voice and vitality, yet his quiet murmur would be louder than any primal scream he ever released. Ali the patriot, as ironic a turn as could be for some, became a U.N. Messenger of Peace and would be called on to travel overseas to negotiate hostage releases.
Perhaps his greatest career achievements arrived in 1996 and 2001, respectively, when he was tapped to light the torch at the Atlanta Centennial Summer Olympics and preached religious tolerance in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. His stature and presence proved towering in each circumstance, uniting the global community in good times and bad. His excellence would not be contained to merely athletic feats.
In recent years, Ali's health continued to decline and physically he diminished, meanwhile his public appearances became fewer and farther in between. He was hospitalized last year for what was reported as a "severe urinary track infection" that was believed to have first been diagnosed as pneumonia. One of Ali's last known appearance was in October when Sports Illustrated paid tribute to the iconic American and renamed their Sportsman Legacy Award after him.
Few have scaled the heights he did, in perspiration and in perseverance.
In death, as in life, Muhammad Ali will remain powerful, poetic and always a champion.