Muhammad Ali will be laid to rest on Friday after what is sure to be an unforgettable memorial service. Ali, a man who fought endlessly for all of his 74 years will finally be at peace.
Despite what you may have heard this week, Ali is not a lock as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all-time. He is in the mix, but Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey, Larry Holmes, Jack Johnson and even Joe Frazier all have legitimate claims to that title. Ali certainly wasn’t the best boxer of all-time, as Henry Armstrong and Sugar Ray Robinson have to top any such list. But there is zero doubt in my mind that Ali the greatest fighter we’ll ever see.
Ali earned that title not just in the ring, but with everything he did. He fought back against oppression and segregation as a child growing up in Kentucky. He fought his way to stardom on the 1960 Olympic team and won a gold medal in Rome that summer. He turned pro soon after and battled ancient perceptions of what a heavyweight boxer couldn’t and shouldn’t do. He fought against critics and oddsmakers who said he would never beat the seemingly unbeatable Sonny Liston. He made them eat their words by becoming the second-youngest heavyweight champion of all-time as a 22-year-old. He immediately declared himself the greatest and the prettiest thing that ever lived. And that was just his opening act.
He changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, aligned himself with the Nation of Islam and dedicated his life to fighting injustice and demanding equality for African Americans. He went on television, professed his greatness repeatedly, defied every convention of how a sportsman was supposed to act in public and dared anyone to challenge him. Then, in the prime of his career, he took on his toughest opponent yet: the United States of America.
In March of 1966, Ali refused induction into the armed forces because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He claimed conscientious objector status because of his religion and he declared he had no quarrel with anyone in southeast Asia. A jury found Ali guilty of draft evasion and he earned a five-year prison sentence. He was stripped of his beloved heavyweight title and – while free as he appealed the conviction – Ali was banned from boxing for more than three years.
During that hiatus, Ali was anything but silent. Many called him a coward and a traitor, but he continued to fight, defiantly pushing for change and the advancement of Civil Rights. The large portion of Americans against the war and draft saw Ali as a hero and rallied around him. He had given up money, his title and endorsements for what he believed was right. That forever changed the way people viewed athletes and the power they possessed.
Jackie Robinson opened the door for African American athletes to be symbols for a cause greater than themselves. Ali, knocked that door off its hinges and stomped into the room with a megaphone.
Not content to just be a boxer, Ali had used his position to help change the world and made us question our perception of right and wrong. He was fighting for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. And wouldn’t you know it, he won when the Supreme Court unanimously voted to reverse his conviction in 1971.
Ali soon returned to the ring and won back his heavyweight title two more times, fought three incredible bouts with Joe Frazier and chopped down the redwood that was a 25-year-old George Foreman. But more importantly, he continued to relentlessly fight for social justice and equality. He traveled the world doing charity work, battling against poverty and hunger wherever he went.
Ali may have dropped five decisions in the ring during his professional career, but he never lost outside of it. His persistence and drive helped make him victorious in every battle he waged.
In 1984 Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome. He never slowed down for a second, despite impaired speech and eventual body tremors. Even after the dire news, he battled on, slugging it out with the disease for 32 years. That was nearly half of his life.
Instead of slowly succumbing to the debilitating nature of Parkinson’s, guess what Ali did? He fought to find a cure. Thanks to the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, advances are being made to fight the disease every day.
Ali fought every day of his life. He fought for his beliefs, he fought for what was right and he fought for those too weak to fight for themselves. Though he rests now, we must strive to live up to the example he set for us. Ali’s actions between the ropes of a ring are not his legacy. No, his relentless fight against injustice, poverty and disease are the real gift he has left us.
On Friday as we celebrate Ali’s life, remember that while his indomitable, restless spirit will have finally left us, that it’s up to us to continue the battles he waged. In doing so we’ll honor the legacy of the greatest fighter this world has ever seen.