Muhammad Ali is a very special person. A famous man who was once the most renowned athlete on the planet, who stood firm by his beliefs and risked his career in doing so, Muhammad Ali remains today one of America’s most admirable athletes and citizens.
As a person of color, I hold Ali in a special place because of what he stands for, for the values he actively stood up for in his prime regarding personal dignity, race and religion, and for his continuing displays of compassion and integrity.
Why is Muhammad Ali so admirable?
There are a number of compelling reasons to admire Muhammad Ali, many of which are concerned with his abilities as a boxer.
What sets Ali apart from other dominant athletes comes outside of boxing. Ali’s personality and his integrity, especially concerning religion and race, make him a hero of the civil rights movement and of the 20th century social conscience movement.
A three-time world heavyweight boxing champion and an Olympic gold medalist, Muhammad Ali showed again and again that he deserved his self-proclaimed moniker, “The Greatest.”
Opposing fighters commented on how fast Ali was in the ring, both with his hands and with his feet. And his intelligence as a boxer was also remarked upon by those who he competed with (and usually defeated).
He performed at the top of his sport for decades.
Muhammad Ali was a boxing champion at a time when boxing was especially popular. He was a beloved champion and he was a vilified celebrity, at the same time.
This is because he was bombastic, boastful, brazen and verbose. He never stopped talking and taunting his upcoming opponents. A savvy player in the media, Ali built up animosity with man he was set to fight while also building interest in the fight’s outcome among the public.
Ali, speaking of Joe Frazier once said, “Frazier is so ugly that he should donate his face to the US Bureau of Wild Life.” It’s funny and it must have hurt Frazier to hear his name used like this. A sane man wouldn’t dare retaliate with words to match Ali’s. That would just invite more of the same (highly entertaining) verbal abuse and ridicule.
With memorable phrases (“float like a butterfly, sting like a be”) and incredible claims (“I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.”) Muhammad Ali captivated people of all races and extended the popularity of his sport to new arenas of public awareness.
The fact that Muhammad Ali was the first repeating world boxing champion and the fact that he was a talker who took sports hype to new levels both draw an impressive picture of a popular athlete.
These facts do not begin to suggest the struggles that Ali faced as a black superstar living in times of segregation in America.
Here was a young man of great wit and talent searching for dignity. To find it he changed his name and adopted the religion of Islam (as a Black Muslim like Malcolm X).
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
To keep that hard-fought dignity, he refused to fight in Vietnam when he was drafted, saying, “I got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger.”
Ali was stripped of his title and kept from fighting in the United States for his stance on the war in Vietnam. Many felt that race had played a part in his selection for the draft – Ali was never given a physical and so legally should not have been granted an A-1 draft status – so his position on the war was complex and controversial all around.
Standing up for his beliefs, both of personal (racial) dignity and religion, meant accepting a sour public perception. For a sports celebrity, this decision is even more monumental than it would have been for an unknown American acting on his beliefs.
The average Joe didn’t stand to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars protesting the war. The average Joe didn’t have a legacy hanging in the balance. Muhammad Ali did.
And in taking the stance that he did, Ali created an even greater legacy, as a man.
Muhammad Ali has further displayed the power of his dignity and integrity by continuing to make public appearances. A victim of Parkinson’s disease, Ali is unable to speak. Having made a career of candor and humor and verbal acuity, it is tragic that this faculty would be taken away from the boxer in his age.
Yet, Ali is still out there, lighting Olympic torches, shaking hands, and representing the hopes and dreams of America.
More on Associated Content:
Is Muhammad Ali a National Hero?