Muhammad Ali dies at 74
Once scorned by many Americans, Muhammad Ali later became a worldwide hero. The “People’s Champion” lost his nearly two decades battle with Parkinson’s disease June 3 in an Arizona hospital at age 74.
Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, got into boxing in his early teens. He won the Golden Gloves light heavyweight title in 1956, and won another national amateur title three years later. He also won the boxing gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics before turning pro.
He was brash — some said Clay talked too much and others hoped someone would shut his mouth up in the ring. It didn’t happen when he knocked out Sonny Liston for the world’s heavyweight title in 1964, and again knocked him out 15 months later to retain his title.
His first defeat, however, came not in the ring but when the U.S. government took him to court. Clay, by then Muhammad Ali, refused to go into the service after being drafted and was convicted. His boxing license was revoked.
That stand was widely criticized by many Americans, including many Blacks such as my late father, who was drafted in World War II. So was Joe Louis, who was then heavyweight champion. Mr. Hallman argued to his young son that if Louis could serve his country, why couldn’t Clay? He also refused to call him Ali.
“His activism and conscientious objection to the Vietnam War showed that despite what he did in the ring, Ali was truly a man of peace,” said U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison in a released statement.
The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled 8-0 that his conviction was unconstitutional — a 2013 HBO film dramatized the case for the small screen. Ali returned to the ring professionally in 1970 and would become the first heavyweight to win a third title. But Ali’s three prime boxing years were lost while he took a then-hotly contested stand that people now hail as perhaps his greatest moment.
“To come back and win the championship three times, that is remarkable,” said Philadelphia Tribune Assistant News Editor Daryl Bell, who wrote a recollection tribute on his newspaper’s website of when Ali would often visit that city’s Overbrook neighborhood to see his uncle.
After his retirement from the ring in 1981 with a 56-5 record and 37 knockouts, Ali fought on the world stage as a humanitarian. When it was learned that he had Parkinson’s symptoms, Ali didn’t stop fighting. He worked tirelessly to bring awareness and raise funds for research. He dealt with his illness and won many hearts over the years on how he handled himself even in poor health.
Sports Illustrated named Ali Sportsman of the Century. The BBC honored him as Sports Personality of the Century. Time Magazine listed him as one of 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. At least eight films have been done on him, including Will Smith’s award-winning portrayal of him in Ali.
Ali was twice honored at the White House — President Bill Clinton in 2001 with the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 by President George W. Bush. The United Nations also made him a worldwide ambassador.
“He became an even more powerful force for peace and reconciliation around the world,” wrote President Barack Obama, who added that prominently displayed in his White House study is a pair of Ali’s boxing gloves and the iconic photo of him standing over a fallen Liston in his first title fight.
“I don’t think people really realized how great he was during his declining years,” added Bell. “It was good to see people come around.”
Tributes and remembrances worldwide have been said and written about Ali — a man who at one time was seen so negatively — since news of his passing became public last weekend.
“White America hated him at one point. Now they see him as relevant and with great respect. There’s not that many African Americans you can say that [about],” noted Bell.
“Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it,” noted President Obama.
Ali is survived by his fourth wife, Yolanda, and nine children. Only one of his offspring, Laila, followed in her father’s footsteps.
“I didn’t want to be Muhammad Ali’s daughter,” Laila told us in a 2012 MSR interview, adding that her father at first discouraged her from becoming a boxer. She retired as a champion after an eight-year career (1999-2007). “I’m just real all the time. I got that from my dad,” she admitted.
Muhammad Ali’s funeral will be held on Friday afternoon, June 10 in Louisville.
“He was a man for the people and of the people,” said Bell of Muhammad Ali. “He was the most recognizable man in the world. He will be missed.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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