What made Muhammad Ali “the greatest of all time” wasn’t just his fancy footwork in the ring and witty one-liners, but how he put his steadfast beliefs into action.
The incomparable boxer, who died Friday at the age of 74, lived a full life of serving those in need and he never compromised his integrity, even when he was criticized for it.
In his 2013 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly, he told the world how he wanted to be remembered in his honest mission statement:
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
Both locally and globally he lived out these words and the world is a better place because of it. Below are four of the many ways “The Greatest” left his mark on the world outside of the ring.
1. He was unapologetically black.
Ali had a message of black pride and vehement resistance to white supremacy. Embedded with his Islamic teachings, Ali was publicly outspoken and unapologetic in his beliefs on race. With close ties to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, it’s hard to separate him from the Black Power Movement. He helped show blacks in America their connection with the African continent. He even denounced his birth name, Cassius Clay, in 1964 calling it his “slave name.”
Even when he was often criticized for being controversial and too radical, he spoke his truth. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize,” he once said. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
He opened the door for many black athletes to be able to express their beliefs today. Never in his life or post-life has Ali “transcended race.” He represented blackness through and through.
2. He spoke out against the Vietnam War.
Anyone who’s ever viewed Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War as less than an act of activism is mistaken. At a time when most of the country favored the war, the athlete risked it all — his career, his money, his reputation and more — because he stood firm in his belief that a black person should not fight for a country that denied them basic rights.
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