By Drew Farmer –
On June 3, three-time World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali passed away. The boxing icon died from septic shock ending his long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Ali family spokesman Bob Gunnell told the press that the boxer had been admitted to HonorHealth Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona. After being admitted, Ali’s condition deteriorated rapidly.
“After a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease, Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. The three-time World Heavyweight Champion boxer died this evening,” Gunnell said in a statement. “The Ali family would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers, and support and asks for privacy at this time.”
Ali was more than just a boxer. He was a voice to a generation crying out to be heard. In a time when American race relations were frayed, his words and actions meant just as much as those of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; and sometimes more.
Ali made a living with his fists, but his mouth grabbed many of the headlines. Nicknamed the “Louisville Lip” for his ability to get under the skin of fellow fighters, Ali stormed to a 19-0 boxing record. His ability to talk fans into boxing arenas and opponents into fits was influenced by one of professional wrestling’s all-time greats Gorgeous George, who Ali watched throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
In 1964, Ali faced off in his biggest fight yet, taking on the “Big Bear” Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship. Ali’s tactics in the build-up to the fight were pure WWE as he “baited the Bear,” antagonizing him constantly.
In February of that year, Ali did the unthinkable, beating Liston in Miami after seven rounds. A rematch a little over a year later saw Ali knock out Liston in the opening round. Although controversy still surrounds the fight’s ending, Ali had already sealed his name as one of the most electrifying men in sports.
Weeks later, already an athlete seen as shaking the white establishment of America, Ali converted to Islam, throwing gasoline on a fire of change in the United States. Already the public face of the Nation of Islam, Ali – still going by his birth name Cassius Clay – had changed his name to Cassius X Clay, before being given the moniker he made famous by Elijah Muhammad.
“Muhammad Ali, considered one of contemporary Islam’s most beloved figures, was always a hero who transcended faith, race and borders,” Jason Rezaian of the Washington Post recently wrote.
In spite of the vitriolic attitude towards Ali, he continued to win fights and he continued to turn back the challenge of various fighters until he was stripped of the World Heavyweight title in April 1967. His crime? Ali refused to be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. Facing five years in prison, Ali stood up for his beliefs, continuing to fight the entire way.
“I am America,” Ali once stated. “I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me – black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own. Get used to me.”
Ali would go on to miss the prime years of his career and did not fight again until October 1970. However, he saved his best for last. Ali’s fights were epic and were given fantastic names like Fight of the Century, Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila.
After back-to-back losses Ali retired in 1981. However, he began his next fight just a few years later when the former champion was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Following Ali’s death, President Barrack Obama released a statement on Ali’s life: “Muhammad Ali shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it.”
On June 9, a jenazah funeral for Ali was held in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. It was estimated 14,000 mourners came out to the time of remembrance. Speaking at the funeral, a University of Southern California Muslim scholar, Sherman Jackson, spoke about the importance of Ali to the Islamic community.
“The passing of Muhammad Ali has made us all feel a little more alone in the world,” Jackson explained. “Something solid, something big, beautiful and life-affirming has left this world.”
A second funeral was held on June 10 in Louisville. Actor Will Smith, who played Ali in the film of the same name, and boxer Lennox Lewis acted as pallbearers. The funeral was attended by numerous world leaders, heads of state and celebrities including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who gave a eulogy.
Speaking about Ali’s appearance to light the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996, Clinton spoke about the emotion he felt.
“I was weeping like a baby seeing his hands shake,” Clinton said. “No matter what it took, the flame would be lit. The fight would be won. I knew it would happen.”
Ali is still considered the greatest boxer of all time. His trash talking has been duplicated by many in sports including boxers, professional wrestlers and UFC fighters. Yet, it is merely athletes attempting to be Ali. The power, passion and emotion will never be equalled.
Ali cut down racial and religious barriers in the United States at an intense social time. He did his talking outside the ring and had the ability to back it up. He was an icon, a legend and a role model.
A generation of Americans have grown up after Ali’s retirement. To them, he was a name, a clip on YouTube and a man that helped the world as he suffered along with it. Yet, to a generation prior, he was a man that stood up for what he believed in and wasn’t afraid to fight with his words.