His words were as loud as his actions. He was among the first to connect with audiences across the globe. He was an athlete and a showman at the same time. And it was no surprise that BBC and Sports Illustrated declared him “Sportsman of the Century.” Muhammad Ali – the icon, left us on June 3, 2016 after disrupting status quo and inspiring millions across the globe.
Ali’s initiation into boxing was purely circumstantial – he wanted to beat up the kid who stole his bike. So he trained to box to achieve the goal. That really summed up his personality. If he felt something was not right, he made sure the world knew and then worked hard to fix it. And once he had fixed it, he once again announced to the world. His sharp wit and a high energy level, gave him an extremely receptive audience across the globe.
Ali was born Cassius Clay in an era of segregation. He supposedly threw his Light Heavyweight Olympics Gold medal (from the Rome Olympics) in the Ohio River after being refused service in a “whites-only” restaurant.
Ali was brilliant at marketing himself – he would predict how he would beat his opponents and in what round. That alone piqued the interest of the audience. However, he amazed his fans when he actually met his predictions.
In 1964 Ali got his first shot at fame when he challenged heavyweight champion Sonny Liston to a championship bout. Despite being a 1-7 underdog, Ali announced himself to the world through confident predictions of victory – I am young, I am fast. He’s too ugly to be a World Champ. The World Champ must be pretty, like me.” Watch: Ali prepares for Sonny Liston
Ali won the championship bout in 6 rounds and proved to the world that his actions were as loud as his words.
Shortly after the win, Ali announced his conversion to Sufi Islam and his new name Muhammad Ali – “I am a free man. Cassius Clay was my slave name. I am no longer a slave.” And there he announced to the world that he was a disruptor, a challenger of status quo.
His challenge to status quo reached a new height when in April 1967, he refused induction into the U.S. Army to fight the Vietnam War. He angered many Americans after claiming, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong. You won’t stand up for me at home and you want me to go out and fight.” Watch:Muhammad Ali Interviews
Subsequently, he was stripped of his WBA title and his license to fight.
In June 1967, a court found him guilty of draft evasion, fined him $10,000, and sentenced him to five years in prison. Although he remained free, pending numerous appeals, he was still barred from fighting.
4 years later – in June 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, reversing the 1967 draft evasion sentence.
However, the best test of his talent, wit and strategic thinking came to the fore in October 1974, when he faced George Foreman in a very well publicized Heavyweight championship fight “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire. His reputation preceded him when he landed in Zaire. Chants of “Ali bomaye” (Ali kill him) could be heard across Zaire in the run up to the fight. Once again, while Foreman was busy preparing for the fight, Ali was connecting with his fans and building up the hype.
In fact, on the night of the fight, George Foreman delayed getting to the ring by 20 minutes – that was enough for the audience to erupt into the “Ali bomaye” chant while they waited.
He won the fight in 8 rounds, based on careful analysis of his opponent, his own physical abilities and a strong backing of the audience. He studied Foreman closely from a video of Foreman knocking Joe Frazier down six times to win the title in 2 rounds. Ali’s business manager Gene Kilroy says: “When Foreman knocked Joe down, George had his hands on the ropes in the neutral corner. Ali said: ‘No stamina. Wait till he hears round six, round seven, round eight’.” He used the rope-a-dope technique (tire out his opponent at the ropes) to ensure that he dragged Foreman to 8 rounds and ultimately knock him out. Watch: Ali vs Foreman fight
As a boxer, he possessed 6 qualities and together they made him unique – an iron clad chin, a ballet dancer’s footwork, hands that moved at the blink of an eye, an analytical brain and most important – a big heart and a bigger mouth!
He was a great sportsman indeed, but what made him greater, was his compassion and the fact that he stood for the poor and the powerless. His business manager, Gene Kilroy recalls a time in Zaire when a lady came by their camp in Zaire and said her son was sick. “Ali said: ‘We’ll go visit him.’ She took us to a leper colony. The staff would put the food down and walk away. Ali was soon lying down with the lepers, hugging them. I took about 10 showers when we got back. Ali just said: ‘Don’t worry about it, God’s looking out for us.’ He always had time for people.”
In his 2004 memoir – The Soul of a Butterfly, he says – “I’d like to be remembered as a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him”
They say a man’s character is best judged by what he does in adversity and Muhammad Ali met adversity head-on with humor. That was one of the traits that endeared him to his fans across the world. Watch: Muhammad Ali humor
“Comedy is a funny way of being serious,” he said in Esquire. “My way of joking is to tell the truth. That’s the funniest joke in the world.”
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease – which slowed him down and silenced him to an extent. But his wit and sharp thinking stayed very much intact. Watch him get Ed Bradley during this CBS 60 minutes interview – when his wife talks about his sleep pattern Ali – 60 minutes Interview
He was a great human being who epitomized love and friendship. Life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls. This touching eulogy from comedian Billy Crystal sums it up aptly Billy Crystal eulogy for Ali