Jan 17 is the birthday of boxer Muhammad Ali, often referred to as ‘The Greatest’.
From a 12-year-old amateur to the greatest heavyweight of all time and an icon for change, Muhammad Ali conquered many worlds.
He blazed his own path, revolutionising the sport of boxing with his flair for showmanship. And then, when he was on top, he turned his back on the arena to stand for his principles.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, Ali started his sports career with a bang, amassing numerous state titles and even attaining the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics.
Inside the ring, he was a menace. Using an innovative and highly unorthodox style, Ali eluded opponents by staying light on his feet and punished them when they slipped.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see.Muhammad Ali
Even before the bell rang, Ali hounded his opponents with verbal lashings. He turned weigh-ins into public spectacles, breaking the confidence of opponents with cutting remarks before he even put on his gloves.
Ali's impressive record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout in 1963 would make him a top contender for Sonny Liston's World Heavyweight Champion title. In a superb fight, Ali's superior speed and mobility were enough to beat Liston and earn him the championship. This was the beginning of his reign at the top.
Throughout a storied career, he became world champion three times.
But outside the arena, Ali was also a force to be reckoned with, spearheading social change and using his influence as a top athlete to combat injustice.
Growing up black in the segregated American South, Ali used boxing as a platform to speak out on racial inequality and prejudice. As he grew older, he began following the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam, eventually converting to Islam and changing his name.
He became part of the Civil Rights Movement, standing as a symbol of bravery and heroism in the black struggle for freedom. He was a charismatic speaker with a silver tongue and a quick wit, enthralling audiences with his boisterous charm.
Ali was an entertainer through and through, dabbling in films, spoken-word poetry, professional wrestling, and even amateur art. He always stood larger than life.
But perhaps the biggest fight of that life came in 1966, during the brutal Vietnam War. Amid the draft, Ali refused to enlist in the US armed forces. He challenged the war and protested what he viewed as its unethical nature. It wasn’t a popular stance. At one point, Ali was branded the most hated person in the country, receiving many death threats.
The US government stepped in and he was convicted of draft evasion, arrested, and fined $10,000. His career was taken away from him for three years as states systematically refused to grant him a boxing license. He was determined to not fight, saying his beliefs forbade him from serving.
No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over… The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.Muhammad Ali
Despite all the setbacks, Ali stayed true to his principles and won a Supreme Court ruling, which allowed him to avoid serving in the military.
He was a giant of the sport and a titan of bravery outside of it, refusing to allow life and circumstance to beat him down. No wonder they call him ‘The Greatest’.
This article is a part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication with a focus on culture and society from a youth perspective.