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Farewell to the champ

Muhammad Ali fought for justice, equality and title

Free Press staff, wire reports | 6/10/2016, 5:38 a.m.
More than 62 years ago, an anonymous bicycle thief in Louisville, Ky., unknowingly set in motion the amazing career of ...
Muhammad Ali taunts Sonny Liston after knocking him out in the first round of their May 1965 rematch, three months after Mr. Ali first defeated Mr. Liston to win the heavyweight title.

As one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, Mr. Ali did not believe in modesty and proclaimed himself not only “the greatest” but “the double greatest” during his heyday. In 1978, DC Comics even featured Mr. Ali and Superman as partners in a comic book.

the boxing champ hugs former President Bill Clinton at a gala to open the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville in November 2005.

Ed Reinke/Associated Press

the boxing champ hugs former President Bill Clinton at a gala to open the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville in November 2005.

Americans had never seen an athlete like him, a man with lightning-fast feet, a quick knockout punch and unrepentant words.

He was heavyweight champ a record three times between 1964 and 1978, taking part in some of the sport’s most epic bouts, dethroning and eclipsing champions like Sonny Liston and George Foreman and winning boxing immortality with his battles with former champion Joe Frazier.

In his heyday, Mr. Ali was cocky and rebellious and psyched himself up by taunting opponents and reciting original poems that predicted the round in which he would knock them out. The audacity caused many to despise Mr. Ali but endeared him to millions who adored him for his ability “to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

“He talked, he was handsome, he did wonderful things,” said George Foreman, a prominent rival, who lost the heavyweight title to Mr. Ali in the 1974 “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire “If you were 16 years old and wanted to copy somebody, it had to be him.”

Mr. Ali proudly stands with daughter, boxing champion Laila Ali, after she won the Super Middleweight title in June 2005 at a match in Washington.

Susan Walsh/Associated Press

Mr. Ali proudly stands with daughter, boxing champion Laila Ali, after she won the Super Middleweight title in June 2005 at a match in Washington.

President George W. Bush awards the Medal of Freedom to Mr. Ali at a White House ceremony in November 2005.

President George W. Bush awards the Medal of Freedom to Mr. Ali at a White House ceremony in November 2005.

Mr. Ali’s emergence coincided with the American civil rights movement and his persona of a rebel offered youths something they did not get from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and most other leaders of the era.

The day after conquering then-champion Sonny Liston and winning his first world heavyweight championship in 1964, Mr. Ali announced he had joined the Nation of Islam under the guidance of Malcolm X and had shed his ‘’slave’’ name of Cassius Clay, shocking the country.

Three years later, he propelled the anti-war movement to new heights by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military to fight in Vietnam. He was convicted of draft evasion, banned from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight title.

When asked about his stance on the North Vietnamese, Mr. Ali famously said, ‘’They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me. They didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.’’

His decision to stay out of the war later won a major decision from the U.S. Supreme Court upholding his position and wiping out his conviction, and with that, Mr. Ali had defeated what many saw as a racist system.

It would have been easier and more lucrative for Mr. Ali to keep quiet and go along with what many in white society wanted from him, said his longtime friend and sports commentator Howard Cosell. They wanted ‘’a white man’s black man,’’ Mr. Cosell once said.


Mr. Ali, accompanied by his wife Lonnie, accepts the President’s Award at the 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards in February 2009.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Mr. Ali, accompanied by his wife Lonnie, accepts the President’s Award at the 40th Annual NAACP Image Awards in February 2009.

Mr. Ali didn’t do deference.

“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize,” Mr. Ali said. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”