One year ago today, Muhammad Ali — arguably the greatest and most unforgettable athlete of the 20th century — lost his decades-long fight with Parkinson’s disease, dying at age 74.
‘I am the greatest’
Originally named Cassius Clay, Ali was in Kentucky during an era of harsh segregation, and confronted its indignities from the start, carrying himself with confidence and pride despite the racist world around him.
He learned to box at the age of 12, motivated by the theft of his red Schwinn bike, which left the skinny youth humiliated — and determined.
‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’
From the start, Clay — who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam — was driven, creating a punishing gym routine that he rarely deviated from.
He was a natural.
The young athlete possessed unmatched speed, agility and physical power. His signature was a kind of mental strength or attitude that he used to outwit his opponents.
Outside the ring, Ali was witty, charismatic, even vain (of his opponents, he would often say ‘He isn’t as pretty as me!”), and often spoke like hyped up poet:
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.
I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.
I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning. And throw thunder in jail.
Although he had already made a name for himself, his big moment came in 1964, when he stepped into the ring for his first title fight against then heavyweight champ Sonny Liston. Ali taunted the champion mercilessly, once appearing unexpectedly at his home to goad him into the ring.
Ali instantly became a worldwide star after knocking out Liston in just six rounds.
Despite his brash charm, originality in the ring and stunning physical prowess, not everyone took to Ali. Many publicly expressed their hatred.
By joining Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and adopting a Muslim name, he alienated many Americans who were not ready to accept a black Muslim boxing star.
“He threatened a sense of the racial order; he was, in his refusal to conform to any type, as destabilizing to many Americans. … He was, for many years, a radical figure for many Americans,” wrote David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker Magazine and author of the 1998 biography “Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.”
By 1967, Ali had won 29 title fights in six and a half years, an extraordinary record. But an unexpected turn of events was to keep the champ out of the ring for the next three years.
When he refused to be inducted into the armed forces during the Vietnam War, the state boxing commission suspended him, stripping him of his title.
Ali would not fight the Vietcong in Vietnam.
That move endeared him to many, African-Americans in particular, who watched as the heavyweight champion of the world courageously gave up his hard-won heavyweight boxing title in exchange for principles.
Ali returned to the ring in 1970, after a federal court upheld his petition for a state license.
He would triumph over and over again in the years to come: reclaiming his title in 1974 in a fight with Joe Frazier; the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in what was then the country of Zaire, where he won a masterful fight against George Foreman; losing his title and winning it back; and, finally, losing it for the last time in 1980 to Larry Holmes.
He retired a year later. By then, the early effects of Parkinson’s disease on Ali’s body were clearly evident in his slurred speech.
As he grew increasingly more ill, he was rarely seen in public, living out the rest of his life quietly with his family in Kentucky and Arizona.