Muhammad Ali was an icon in the boxing ring.
The three-time world heavyweight champion, who died on Friday, June 3, at age 74, repeatedly beat boxing legends like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman.
He finished his career with 57 wins and five losses. He knocked out his opponents 37 times and was only knocked out once.
He started his career with 31 straight wins and went 10 straight years without a loss.
It’s somehow even more impressive to think about what could have been. Ali missed three years of in-ring action during his physical prime due to a suspension from the sport.
Ali was barred from the sport he excelled at from 1967 until 1970 due to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War after he was drafted. Ali cited his religious beliefs and personal opposition to American involvement in the war as reasons he wouldn’t fight.
This made Ali an icon to a whole new set of people: the American countercultural movement of the late 60’s.
Ali received vehement, and arguably justified, criticism of his refusal to join the military for the rest of his life.
He was famously a member of the Nation of Islam, a controversial religious movement whose stated goals include improving the spiritual, mental, social and economic conditions of African Americans. But critics have labeled it as a Black supremacist group.
Ali’s refusal to fight in Vietnam, as a conscientious objector, came in the midst of the American civil rights movement. He once said that he shouldn’t have to travel 10,000 miles to fight a war when black people in America are “treated like dogs and denied simple human rights.”
While some may find Ali’s actions radical, controversial and even deplorable, his deep desire for equality, justice and respect is still relevant today.
After his retirement from boxing and his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, Ali’s views became less radical and more inclusive, and he fought hard for those same desires.
Ali met with Saddam Hussein in 1991 to negotiate the release of American hostages in Iraq; went to Afghanistan in 2002 as a United Nations “Messenger of Peace;” and lit the Olympic torch in 1996, the ultimate symbol of international harmony and goodwill.
He truly lived the life of an icon.
— Gregory Menti