On Saturday, January 17th, one of the most important sports and cultural figures turned 73 years old. Muhammad Ali notoriously ‘flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee’. He was respected by all and feared by many. The Louisville Lip went on to have one of the most decorated boxing careers in the history of the sport, but outside the ring is where he had his greatest impact. Born Cassius Clay, he preached religious freedom, racial justice, and the triumph of principle over expedience. Meshing utter dominance between the ropes and brave activism outside of them resulted in one of the most recognized and awarded men in sports history.
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be enlisted into the U.S. Military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. When asked why he opposed fighting in the war, he infamously stated, “Ain’t no Vietcong ever call me a n****r.” Ali was arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges, although the conviction was eventually overturned 4 years later.
“The Greatest” shifted the way the world viewed African-American athletes. Instead of letting his manager do the talking, Ali spoke often in press conferences, tackling subjects unrelated to boxing. He was willing to display racial pride and go against the racist-grain of the time.
Joyce Carol Oates said that Ali was one of the few athletes in any sport to “define the terms of his public reputation.” He molded his legacy as he saw fit. He was unafraid to express his views, regardless of the consequences. His press conferences were outlandish and unpredictable, making Ali just as entertaining outside the ring as inside.
In a time of unprecedented racial tension, Ali was comparable to the likes of Malcolm X and Dr. King. Being African-American and speaking out for African-American’s right was a very risky move in this era. In many cases, athletes or celebrities can get a political point across more effectively than the political leaders themselves. Hearing a professional athlete preach peace, equality, and love was, and still is, an usual site. Ali helped spark the counterculture generation, which opposed the established on subjects like women’s rights, civil rights, etc.
Much like his fighting style, Ali’s cultural views and how he presented them were unorthodox. He was one of the first athletes or celebrities to openly oppose cultural norms. Born and raised in Kentucky, he faced inequality and hatred regularly. He spoke out against war, racism, and inequality. Whether it was being drafted into the war or a bout with Joe Frazier, he always seemed to come out on top with pride. Ali is widely regarded as one of the best to ever box, but his huge impact outside of the boxing ring should never be forgotten.