Muhammad Ali is reportedly on life support, after respiratory problems caused him to be hospitalized in Phoenix yesterday. Ali’s spokesman claimed he was in “fair” condition when he was admitted, but today The Mirror reports his family is rushing to his side and a family friend confirmed Ali is near the end. It is unclear whether he has a chance to survive what has become just the latest titanic fight in a life filled with them.
Ali turned 74 in January and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984. His public battle with the disease has brought awareness to it. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Ali rose from the amateur boxing ranks to win a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, then went on to become arguably the most recognizable human on the planet.
Ali was a fixture in heavyweight boxing for more than 20 years and is the only fighter to win the lineal heavyweight world championship on three separate occasions. Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, won his first world title at just 22 years old in a stunning upset over Sonny Liston in 1964.
While he will always be remembered for his thrilling three-fight war with Joe Frazier, Ali’s most memorable battle came against the United States government when he refused to serve in Vietnam. He claimed his Islamic beliefs did not permit him to fight a war and filed for conscientious objector status.
Ali was suspended from boxing for more than three years and was forced to give up his world title as a case against him went all the way to the Supreme Court. On June 28, 1971 the Court ruled in Clay vs. United States that he did not have to serve and was granted conscientious objector status. The ruling was a unanimous 8-0 verdict, with Justice Thurgood Marshall not participating.
Ali was a hero to many for his stance against the war in Vietnam, but was vilified by others. He had truly become a crossover star. With his brash trash-talking and incredibly entertaining dancing in-ring style, he was already incredibly popular but the fight against the government took his status to stratospheric heights.
His legendary fights against Frazier and George Foreman have lived on as pivotal sports moments. They changed the way people looked at boxing and fighters. Ali was an amazing pugilist, but what made him special was how unique he was. He was different in an era in this country that embraced outsiders and trail blazers. Whether he wanted to be or not, he was at the center of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.
Don’t get me wrong, Ali has never been perfect. But he was always his own man and blazed his own path. He set an important example, and his brave fight against Parkinson’s is just the latest evidence of that.
While Ali fights for his life in a Phoenix hospital all we can do is pray he gets better. His life is an illustration to the rest of us that we must make the most of our time on this Earth and strive to leave an indelible mark. The man named the “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated has always been so much more than that. He has been one of the most important people on the planet since he burst onto the scene at the Olympics in Rome nearly 60 years ago.
Whether you loved Ali or hated him, there is no denying he had an enormous impact on the world. Here’s hoping he has a chance to continue doing so.