The passing of Muhammad Ali affects people from around the world. While he has been out of the public eye for some time, he leaves a legacy unmatched by any politician from any country.
His success inside the ring is well documented. As legendary as that was, perhaps his greatest achievements came outside the ropes.
When he burst onto the scene 52 years ago, Ali shocked the world and any gentlemanly façade that surrounded the sport of boxing. Baby boomers and their surviving parents remember his grand entrance to the world stage.
On February 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay stopped then-champion Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. Listening to the fight with my father over a crackling Mutual Radio Network broadcast, Clay told listeners how pretty he was and that he was a “bad man.”
We were appalled by his lack of grace and sportsmanship. Less than two weeks later he officially became part of the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
In the 1960s, they were known in the white community as “Black Muslims” and epitomized the racial barriers of the era. It drove many in my circle nuts that after each fight he would not answer the first question and instead salute “the Honorable Elijah Muhammad” (then-leader of the Nation of Islam). After that, Ali would repeat how great he was.
On April 28, 1967, Ali committed what I thought then was the consummate outrage when he refused induction into military service. It was satisfying that he was stripped of the title of heavyweight champion.
This was a tumultuous time in American history. Less than three months later in July, more than a dozen race riots broke out in several U.S. cities including Detroit, Harlem, Tucson and Houston.
He was convicted of evading the draft, and I was glad. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned that conviction saying Ali had a right to refuse to serve based on religious beliefs.
Whether his three-year absence from boxing softened those of us who loathed Ali, his return to the ring late in 1970 was highly anticipated. His opponent, Jerry Quarry, was basically a decent guy, but I wanted Ali to win.
What the hell?
Perhaps it was during this period that many of us looked into our own souls. This guy had a deep religious conviction about taking up arms and risked his entire career to stand by it.
You had to respect that. That respect took hold, and I would eventually become a full-throated Ali supporter.
I was in the Navy and at sea when he knocked out George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Upon hearing the news, I considered this to be one of the greatest moments in boxing history.
One of my greatest disappointments came the next year when I was actually in Manila on October 1, 1975, but could not attend the “Thrilla in Manila.”
By that time Ali had left the Nation of Islam and aligned with another sect of Islam that let him be a true ambassador for world peace. He continued fighting for another five years (about three years too long) before regularly sharing his beautiful spirit with people of all races and religions around the world.
At this point, I had come full circle from outright revulsion to respect to total admiration. Ali had become the most popular man in the world. His surprise appearance at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 to light the flame sent the crowd and those watching on television into a frenzy.
He did as much to bring people together than anyone before or since. Ali connected with people, even those he never encountered. He was a world champion for peace.
Politicians and world leaders will pay tribute to him now that he has gone. The rest of us will lament that today’s politicians and world leaders can’t practice the peace, grace and understanding that a fighter demonstrated just by the way he interacted with others.
As someone who followed the last 52 years of his life, I join with the tens of millions who feel a special loss with his passing. We learned so much from him.