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Muhammad Ali: Why is he considered the greatest sportsperson of all time?

A tribute to the legendary Muhammad Ali and reasons why he is truly the "greatest."

Muhammad Ali
“The Greatest” passed away on Friday.

We are often told that God created all men/women equal and no human being is superior to the other. However, there are certain people who walk the face of this earth and leave a mark so indelible on our collective consciousness, you are forced to think that God was partial as well. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali was one such being who, till the time he passed his last breath on Friday, made us believe that he had some sort of deal with God.

The incident that changed his life

Every person who has entered the realm of greatness in history has to draw their inspiration from a moment or a person, at some point of the other. A 12-year-old Cassius Clay was riding on his bike to a local community club, where ice cream and balloons were being distributed.

Little did the boy know that his whole life was about to change. Clay’s bike got stolen and this made him see red, taking his rage to a level where he wanted to seek violent revenge and thrash the thief. But instead of finding the thief, Clay bumped into a policeman, who spotted something in the boy and told him to take up boxing. The rest, as they say, is history.

His rise in the boxing circuit, right from the start, was pretty meteoric and gave plenty of signals about what was coming. The 1960s was one of the greatest in USA‘s history and Ali was a chief contributor in making it so, both from a sporting and a social perspective. After graduating from Louisville Central High School in 1960, Ali shot to nationwide fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in the light-heavyweight category, only to be stripped of it later.

A star different from everyone else

Ali made quick leaps in his professional career, winning one fight after the other, defeating people like Tunney Hunsaker and Lamar Clark. While there have been many sportspersons who have been successful at a young age, Ali developed a niche for himself due to his outspokenness and fearlessness.

People, no matter how much they talk about sticking to principles, love characters that give them things to talk about and say seemingly incomprehensible things. The African-American community already had sportsmen like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson to idolise and admire. However, their excellence and demeanour were restricted in a lot of ways and the African-American community needed a new sporting hero. Maybe they prayed really hard or they just got lucky.

Also read: Muhammad Ali: 10 lesser known stories about the boxing legend

Ali transcended his field of expertise to become this larger-than-life character who could do miracles and talk about them in advance. Here was a man who was unashamed to be an African-American, knew he was good and did not hide that whatsoever. There is a grave danger that comes along with being a genius and knowing it at the same time – it often leads to the bloating of one’s ego and the beginning of the fall. Ali was different, far different.

He was the sort of person who would walk into your house, tell you that it was his and you would be compelled to believe him due to the conviction and confidence in his tone. For the first time in American sports history, especially for African-Americans, there was a man flaunting his heritage in public and at the same time commanding everyone’s unanimous respect.

Religion, spiritualism and social change

What made Ali stand out, and this would hold true no matter which era he would have been born in, was the contribution he made to society and his community in particular. A critical moment in Ali’s life came when he visited a mosque in Miami. After spending some time there he realised the existence of his spiritual side. He joined the Nation of Islam and forged really strong relationships with the likes of Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. 

It can be safely said that changing his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali altered the course of the boxer’s destiny forever. In reply to a question about the Nation of Islam in 1964, he said, "I believe in Allah and in peace. I’m not a Christian anymore. I’m free to be whatever I want. Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don't tote weapons. They pray five times a day.”

No fight was more important in shaping the destiny of Cassius Clay than the one with Sonny Liston in 1964. He entered the fight with a 19-0 record but as a massive underdog, given Sonny Liston’s pedigree; little did everyone know what was coming. He defeated Liston when the latter gave up in the seventh round in front of a packed crowd in Miami, Florida.

Ali was not just a man who knew how to speak big words, he would manifest them into actions as well. The Vietnam War sparked massive protests throughout USA in the second half of the 1960s and Ali was right in the thick of things. In 1967, he refused to serve the military by deciding not to go to Vietnam, which bore some dire consequences for him. Not only was Ali stripped of his world heavyweight title, he was also convicted for refusing induction and sentenced to five years in prison. 

Like every superhero in a DC or Marvel comic book, Ali had to go through widespread public criticism due to some of his decisions. His decision to not go to Vietnam caused some sort of disgruntlement amongst Americans who thought Ali was being a coward. However, Ali, relentless in his pursuit of standing by the truth, would keep fighting the odds and even court battles. Unfortunately, his lawyer’s skills in the court were nowhere close to Ali’s abilities in the ring, and thereby his return to the ring was delayed.

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