The world lost a legend on Friday with the passing of Muhammad Ali. Not just a legend, but the most recognizable face on the planet. The Greatest.
The highlight reel of his career is endless: winning Olympic gold, beating Liston to win the heavyweight championship, knocking him out in the first round a year later, the Fight of the Century, Ali-Frazier II, The Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila.
In fact, check out the Rumble in the Jungle on YouTube. Ali going up against an unbeaten punching machine in George Foreman who was seven years younger and hit like a truck. Round after round, Ali took those punches, until unbelievably, he comes off the ropes in a way that will have you jumping out of your seat. Even though you know how it ends, it’s still shocking and incredible every time you see it.
But he wasn’t the icon that he was because of boxing. It is, in part, because of his courage to be who he was at a time when it wasn’t popular to be who he was. He didn’t just refuse induction into the Army during the Vietnam War on religious grounds, he pointed out the hypocrisy and bigotry in America at the time.
While he’s admired for the courage of that stand now, he was vilified and hated for it at the time. The cheers turned to boos. He faced the possibility of prison time and he was stripped of his ability to fight for more than three years in his prime. But he remained steadfast in his convictions and in doing so, he redefined what it meant to be an athlete and an American.
As for how to remember him, he put it best himself: “I would love 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.”
Rest in peace. ‘The Greatest’ has left us.