“Rumble, young man, rumble.” Muhammad Ali, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, lost his final fight to Parkinson’s on June 3, at the age of 74.
Ali died at a Phoenix-area hospital, where he had undergone treatment over a span of five days for respiratory complications. According to family spokesperson, Bob Gunnell, Ali died of septic shock, passing only after his wife and children arrived at the hospital to say goodbye.
Ali battled Parkinson’s disease for three-decades, but this did nothing to diminish the legend that could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
It remains to be seen which will last longer: Ali’s undisputable reputation as a world-class pugilist, or his unwavering commitment to his beliefs, which fueled his desire for justice and equality.
Kameelah Rashad, the Muslim chaplain at the University of Pennsylvania, after Ali’s death reflected, “As descendants of enslaved Africans, great individuals like Muhammad Ali remind us of the enduring resilience, faith and joy of our ancestors. Ali remains for me a symbol of what it means to be unapologetically Black and Muslim in America.”
Muhammad Ali was many things: a father, a husband, a Muslim, a three-time world heavyweight boxing champion, an advocate for Parkinson’s disease. What he continued to remind the world of, though, was that he was a believer: A believer in not only himself but in something greater.
Ali: Civil Rights Hero—and Draft Dodger
Throughout his storied career, he successfully defended his title six times. He won the gold medallion at the 1960 Olympics aged 18. Throughout his professional career, he won 56 of 61 fights, with 37 knockouts.
His success in the ring was matched by his sparring claims: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”
At the height of American racism, he was perhaps the most persecuted American sportsman by the U.S. government to have ever lived, and was eviscerated by the mainstream, white, liberal press. Athletes today are routinely derided for using their personal platforms for political causes—yet Ali used his to bring politics to the fore. In 1967, during the height of the Vietnam War, Ali refused conscription into the U.S. Army, claiming conscientious objector status. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?” Ali said in an interview. “They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
The reaction to Ali’s stance was swift and harsh. Stripped of his boxing title, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. Eventually released on appeal, he was barred from fighting or leaving the country. Despite these restrictions in place, Ali continued to train and tour two hundred college campuses, speak to students and spar in heated debates. He spoke about black power, social injustice and the inherent inequality of the draft, pointing out the hypocrisy of blacks being denied rights and coerced to fight America’s battles abroad.
Once, during a college campus tour, a white student challenged Ali on his draft avoidance. Ali responded: “My enemy is the white people, not Vietcongs or Chinese or Japanese. You, my opposer when I want freedom. You, my opposer when I want justice. You, my opposer when I want equality. You won’t even stand up for me in America for my religious beliefs and you want me to go somewhere and fight but you won’t even stand up for me here at home.” His refusal to recant his statements was a mark of great intellectual courage, in the face of strident, near-universal condemnation.
It took four years for Ali’s case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. In June 1971, the Court overturned Ali’s conviction in a unanimous decision. The Court held that the Department of Justice was wrong in saying that Ali’s opposition to the draft was not motivated by religious belief.
Ali and Islam
While the world fondly regards him now as Muhammad Ali, the public renouncing of his birth name, Cassius Clay and conversion to Islam split boxing fans and the greater American public. “Cassius Clay is my slave name,” he said. “Clay means dirt. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali.”
Ali’s public relationship with Islam and his personal faith were seen in everything he did. In a televized interview, Ali was once asked, “Do you have a bodyguard?” To which he replied, smiling, “No, I have one bodyguard. He has no eyes though he sees. He has no ears though he hears. He remembers everything with the aid of mind and memory. When he wishes to create a thing, he just orders it to be and it comes into existence, but this order does not convey the words which takes the tongue to form like out sound carries ears. He hears the secrets of those on the quiet thoughts… That’s God, Allah. He’s my bodyguard. He’s your bodyguard.”
Ali’s relationship with Islam began when he was 22-years-old, just after he became the youngest fighter to ever take the heavyweight title from a champion. It was after this that Ali claimed, “I shook up the world.”
But he didn’t just shake up the world with his newfound title. In 1963 Ali converted and joined the Nation of Islam under the guidance of Malcolm X. That relationship soured after Malcolm X’s famous trip to Mecca and his subsequent denunciation of the Nation—Ali would describe his rejection of X as his greatest regret. Years later, Ali himself left the Nation of Islam to become a Sufi.
A public funeral service is scheduled for Friday in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. A private family service will be held Thursday. Ali’s family said the Friday service will “allow anyone that is there from the world to say goodbye.”
As news of his death spread throughout the world, leaders paid tribute. Ali “shook up the world. And the world is better for it. We are all better for it,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a lengthy statement.
“A part of me slipped away,” the boxer George Foreman said on Twitter, while on the same medium, Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London said that he “was not just a boxing legend, but a civil rights champion and a towering figure of our time.” U.S. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders offered that Ali was loved not just for his “his great boxing skill; it was his incredible courage.” Hillary Clinton and President Bill Clinton issued a joint statement saying that “boxing fans across the world knew they were seeing a blend of beauty and grace, speed and strength that may never be matched again.” Civil rights leader, Rev. Jesse Jackson, noted that Ali “sacrificed the heart of his career and money and glory for his religious beliefs about a war he thought unnecessary and unjust.” he said. “His memory and legacy lingers on until eternity. He scarified, the nation benefited. He was a champion in the ring, but, more than that, a hero beyond the ring.”