The Greatest of All Time
One of the most famous and greatest athletes of all time, boxer Muhammad Ali, died earlier this week. He was 74 years old.
He was confident and complicated but also compassionate. He lived a big, bold life.
When he was a kid growing up in Louisville, Kentucky his bike was stolen. He complained to a police officer that he was going to beat up whoever did it. The police officer, who was also a boxing coach, offered to teach him how to box instead. And it soon became obvious that Muhammad Ali was really talented. The story goes that he called up boxing gyms and told them he was going to be the world’s greatest boxer. Which he indeed became.
And that’s just where his story begins.
His personality was larger than life and larger than his sport. He was like social media decades before there was such a thing. He was nicknamed the Louisville Lip. He told everyone, all the time that he was The Greatest. That he was The Prettiest. That he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” That he “handcuffed lightening and threw thunder in jail”. He believed in himself. It was self-fulfilling. And it was generally acknowledged by his friends, fans and even grudgingly by his foes.
If the above video doesn’t play you can view it here .
And he has tons of great quotes you can read at Inc. , including: “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick.” But he’s got some real words of wisdom too.
He won the gold medal in the 1960 Olympics. You can watch the video of it here on NBC Sports’ site .
He loved his medal so much he reportedly wore it everywhere, even slept with it. But it was also during a time of racial tension and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. He returned a hero but was still reportedly turned away from restaurants considered “whites only.” One version of the story is that he threw his medal into the Ohio River in disgust. Other accounts are that he simply lost it. In either case, he received a replacement at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when he lit the torch at the opening ceremonies.
After the Olympics but still in the early 1960s, he changed the name he was born with, Cassius Clay (pronounced: Cash-us Clay), to the name we know him by now, Muhammad Ali. He did this when he joined the Nation of Islam, an African-American Muslim organization. Ali had become friends with Malcolm X, a leading figure in the Nation of Islam in the early 1960s, but it was a controversial group. It was a risky move for his career but Mr. Ali did what he wanted and believed was right for him.
Then, when Mr. Ali was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, he refused. That was against the law. He said it was against his religion and that he had nothing against Vietnam and its people. Many people praised him for his defiant stance but he was banned from boxing for three years, from 1967-1970, because of it. Those were three years in his prime.
When he was allowed to return to boxing, he participated in a fight against Joe Frazier promoted as The Fight of the Century. It was in New York’s Madison Square Garden. Muhammad Ali lost — and it was the first loss of his professional career — but he was back on the map.
Another famous fight was the Rumble in the Jungle in 1975 in then Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It was against George Foreman (who is now also famous for his George Foreman Grill!). Mr. Ali won.
And then there was the Thrilla in Manilla — a boxing match in 1975 in the Philippines against Joe Frazier, a chance for Muhammad Ali to avenge his previous loss. Mr. Ali won.
Muhammad Ali retired from boxing in 1981, when he was 39 years old. His speech slurred, his hands shook, and he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a disease that impacts the nervous system and gets worse over time. But it didn’t stop him from staying an incredibly beloved and public figure. He starred in a Broadway show , he spoke up for peace and for people less fortunate than him. He went to Iraq and successfully negotiated with its dictator Saddam Hussein to release 15 American hostages! He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. President George Bush gave him the award calling him “a fierce fighter and a man of peace.” It’s an interesting description.
Personally, I was one of the lucky ones to meet him.
It was at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia when I was a producer with NBC. I remember turning a corner near where our work trailers were and near the end of an unglamorous alley stood Muhammad Ali. Even though he was a bit older by then, there was no mistaking who he was. You just knew. He waved me and my colleagues over and even though he could barely speak above a whisper, HE offered to take photographs with us. He was so kind. It’s something I wouldn’t have been comfortable asking but I’m so glad he did.