Known as The Greatest for more reasons than one, Muhammad Ali is without a doubt one of the most renowned heavyweight boxers of our time. He made the world stand in awe of winning a grand total of 56 matches throughout his athletic career, bagging himself a Gold Medal in the Olympics back in 1960 and achieving the title of World Heavyweight Champion for the first time in 1964.
His significance in the boxing world is undeniable but many don’t realize the impact he has had upon the wider world. His contributions to activism and philanthropic efforts made him a leading example of the Civil Rights Movement.
Let’s look into all the ways in which he was a hero in his own right and not just in the ring!
More than a medal
Though known for his ability to psych out his opponents with his fight talk, he wasn’t quite the hard man you’d expect him to be. When he wasn’t boasting about his tough skills before a big match, he was both an entertainer and a poet. His artful phrases and powerful words go well beyond his famous catchphrase to ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.
He spoke his truth and allowed us all to see deep below the surface of the man who broke free from the metaphorical chains of his birth name Cassius Clay. Ever one to challenge the status quo and speak out for his beliefs, the civil rights activist transformed himself into a leader as Muhammad Ali.
Taking a stand
He was a public figure who remained brave and true until the end and throughout his life had fought for far more than just a title in the ring.
Back in 1966 when the Vietnam War was in full swing, Muhammad Ali made his views clear that he did not agree with what was happening and would not support the cause under any circumstances. He was the first of his kind to speak out against the war which certainly started to shake things up a bit.
After the US Army had reached out for more young recruits to serve their country against the Vietnamese opposition, the boxer was drafted. The War went against everything he believed in and certainly didn’t align with his Muslim faith. His dedication to supporting peace and equality was demonstrated when he refused military service. After the 4th rejection, he was arrested and given a 5-year prison sentence by the US Government.
Whilst you may imagine that after risking so much and being stripped of his boxing license as a result, he would have wanted to live a quiet life, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. His time inside was a price he was willing to stake and only added fuel to the fire rather than suppressing the flames.
From then on, he was admired by civil rights activists and those fighting for social justice during a time when the Civil Rights Movement was going from strength to strength. They saw a heroic attempt to stand up for his people, putting his principles above his own needs and desires.
When his sentence was revoked in 1971, he continued to speak out against the racial inequality and prejudice that had become a plague on the USA.
Having grown up in his hometown of Kentucky, he was all too familiar with the segregation of the South and what an impact that had upon African-Americans of that time. However, it’s inconceivable that he could have been refused a table in a burger restaurant later in 1960 right after his fight with the Polish great Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.
Perhaps it was his first-hand encounters with racism that spurred him on to become a member of the black Civil Rights movement or the lifetime of witnessing discrimination that made him want to use his influence as a powerful symbol to challenge the worldviews of the era.
Regardless of his driving force, there is no denying that Muhammad Ali became a stepping stone for black power and streamlined the agendas and ideas into a more achievable strategy for change. He even set up the promotional corporation Main Bout Inc to challenge white economic power in the boxing world by incorporating the vision of giving back some of the profits from his fights to African Americans.
Devotion to the greater good
Many will remember the memorable fight against George Foreman but it’s safe to say that the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ was not just during the boxing matches he is so famed for.
His efforts in philanthropy such as goodwill missions to North Korea and Afghanistan are but a few examples of ways in which advocating humanitarianism and promoting religious freedom became embedded into his life.
He became widely recognized for his contributions as the ‘Champion of Freedom’ back in 1998 when he was chosen as the United Nations Messenger of Peace and later in 2005 when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It’s a truth of life that it only takes one man to make a change and as a leading member of the Civil Rights Movement, he showed America that persistence and determination were needed to be able to overcome the suppression that black people had faced for far too long. Touring college campuses across America in the 70s to spread the word and raise awareness, Ali’s impact upon the African-American community was nothing short of momentous.
His vocalization on black liberation along with his conscientious objection to joining the military became the center of many debates. He knew that he had a greater purpose to demonstrate his power than simply through boxing and he put his influence as an athlete to good use.
Today, he leaves behind an incredible legacy. Having dedicated his latter years to supporting Parkinson’s research, the Special Olympics, and the Make a Wish Foundation, he continues to show us all the importance of social justice and why we should all work towards making this world a better place to live in.