There are few men in a generation, perhaps in the history of humanity, that live a life so large and grand, it’s almost impossible to fathom how great they were. And no matter how many times you hear the same stories over and over again, it always stands the test of time.
One Cassius Clay, who we would later revere as Muhammad Ali, became a figure in such high regard. Anyone that grew up in Louisville, KY like I did has heard fabled tales from family members and friends, almost as if he was mythical like he was Louisville’s proverbial Loch Ness monster.
You grew up hearing about Ali growing up on in a small house on Grand Avenue in west Louisville, graduating from Central High School in the class of 1960. You had heard about how as a 12-year old in suburban Louisville, he took up boxing classes after his bicycle was stolen. You heard about how he was trained by former LMPD officer Joe Martin, and later on, Angelo Dundee all the way until he retired.
You had heard how Ali, as a young prodigy in boxing, took the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, and four years later defeated Sonny Liston twice, claiming his first heavyweight championship at 22 years old. It also resulted in this iconic photo, perhaps the most in sports history.
You had heard how he underwent a metamorphosis from “young Cassius Clay from Louisville, KY” to the newly named Muhammad Ali, after converting his religion to Islam. You had heard that because of his newfound faith and as an African-American during the Civil Rights Movement, he refused to fight for his country in Vietnam, risking condemnation from the United States and imprisonment to advance world peace.
You had heard about how he returned after three years of exile from boxing and blitzed through Jerry Quarry. He then smoked Joe Frazier twice after losing their first fight, and grilled George Foreman in Kinshasa while fans were chanting, “Ali Bomaye!” You heard that he also defeated the likes of Floyd Patterson, Cleveland Williams, Leon Spinks, even Superman along the way to solidifying himself as the greatest of all-time in boxing.
You had heard about him dodging punches like time had slowed down for him in a 20′ x 20′ boxing ring, how you could almost hear the whiff of each punch that missed Ali as he either (A) rope-a-doped the likes of Frazier, or (B) eluded punches effortlessly with sharp footwork and head movement, as if he could predict every move that they made.
You, especially, had heard about his famous trash-talk, how we tactically weaved words together almost as accurately as his punches. With each word, it drove into his opponents’ psyche like a proverbial body hook, taking opponents out of the fight before they even stepped into the ring. His gift of gab and gift of jab, long before Enzo Amore used it as a catchphrase in WWE, led to him finishing with a 56-5 record and a three-time boxing heavyweight champion.
But no matter how many times one hears it, or how many different testimonies of Ali you hear from Presidents or residents of Louisville, it is always amazing to hear about the totality of accomplishments that he had attained in his 74 years of life. In an era where most athletes retire and then fade into obscurity for the most part, Ali’s legacy not only grew, it flourished after his retirement. After all, it would’ve been hard for Ali to lay low; he was a man who loved the cameras — and people — as much as he loved to verbally assassinate his opponents.
Even as his body withered in his final years due to Parkinson’s disease, no feat inside the ring — or outside of it — was ever too big for Ali to accomplish. One year after his diagnosis, he was the guest referee for the main event of the very first WrestleMania main event. Even among titans of pop-culture in the main event like Mr. T, Hulk Hogan and the late Roddy Piper — as well as appearances by Liberace and Cyndi Lauper — Ali was perhaps one of the more recognizable figures. That main event would eventually become the catalyst for catapulting WWE as the premier brand of professional wrestling.
As an ambassador for peace and for Islam, Ali sought to achieve world peace and to help others. He helped negotiate for the freedom of American hostages with Saddam Hussein in 1991. He was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2002, and earned the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 2005.
In spite of his growing age and loss of motor function, Ali continued to inspire and rally those around him. He carried the torch and lit the eternal flame at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, stunning everyone around the world. It was made more evident like how Ali once talked a man out of falling off a skyscraper, and later becoming a Messenger of Peace. He won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Century award, will have its Legacy Award in his name, and will also grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the 40th time on this week’s issue.
Despite his ventures all over the world as a boxer, humanitarian and a devout Muslim, Ali never forgot his roots, still Cassius Clay from Louisville, KY. He would often return home in his early years, most notably when he allegedly threw his 1960 gold medal into the Ohio River. He returned in 2005 for the grand opening of the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum that almost serves as a temple to worship his greatness in the boxing ring, and his greatness as a human being outside of it.
In his later years, with his legacy cemented and Louisville more receptive to him, Ali would return to support his hometown university, the Louisville Cardinals. He was there when Bobby Petrino’s football team won the Orange Bowl in 2006, alongside golf legend Arnold Palmer. He was there when Louisville stunned the world and beat the Florida Gators in the 2013 Sugar Bowl, almost 50 years after Ali had stunned the boxing world by knocking Liston out in 1964. Most recently he made appearances in 2014 and 2015, when Louisville hosted then-defending national champion Florida State and Clemson at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
I remember vividly standing in the south terrace opposite of where Ali was sitting in the box for the Florida State game, and the ovation he received was almost louder than any touchdown Louisville scored. I have no personal anecdotes to share about meeting Ali, but even in this brief instance, you realized that Ali had this incredible aura about him. An aura that could just captivate the 55,000 or so that was that game, and perhaps millions around the world. How could he not, after Ali was such a revered character for all of his accomplishments?
Trying to measure Ali’s legacy as a whole is unfathomable. I would have said impossible, but Ali once said that “impossible is just a big word used by small men who find it easier to live in a world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.” Ali was the penultimate fighter; a three-time boxing heavyweight champion, a man who fought the U.S. government for his right to practice peace through Islam instead of fighting in war, and an icon of the city of Louisville. He was boisterous, unapologetically confident and sharp-tongued in a way that almost no athlete will likely ever be in this, or any, lifetime. But he was also unrivaled in skill, commitment to boxing and to being the penultimate philanthropist. He was fearless, tenacious and worked harder than everyone else, and truth be told, his commitment and confidence what I, and many others, have wanted to strive for.
Ali famously said that he wanted to show us how great he was. For a man with a legacy that he has, no boulevards, museums or Key and Peele rap battles could ever hold his legacy high enough, just as no one could hold him back from being the greatest. And there surely have been many that emulated Ali; Anderson Silva wove past punches with ease while securing his legacy as perhaps the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time as a longtime UFC middleweight champion. Conor McGregor captivates many with his gifted gab and becoming a featherweight champion, while Michael Jordan left his sport for three years and returned to basketball dominant as ever, just like Ali did with boxing (although their circumstances for departure are significantly different).
But make no mistake, there can be only one Muhammad Ali.