Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died Friday night in a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Ali, 74, was treated for respiratory complications in the days leading to his death after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. Funeral arrangements are being made in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, will forever be remembered for his incredible contributions to boxing and civil rights. He called himself “The Greatest” and was a three-time World Heavyweight champion who never shied away from the spotlight. He refused to let any opponent, in or out of the ring, make him feel like he was lesser. Ali had a way with words, and his most famous quotes include these:
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee…”
“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see. Now you see me, now you don’t. George thinks he will, but I know he won’t.”
“I am the greatest…”
“I am the greatest. I said that even before I knew that I was.”
“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.”
“A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”
“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Ali was his own No. 1 fan, and his self-love was both motivating and intimidating to his opponents.
But Ali was also a staunch fighter for social justice. After representing the U.S. at the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was refused service at a soda counter because he was black — and he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. It was in the ’60s that he also famously converted to Islam and shed his old “slave” name in favor of the one we all know so well.
If Ali’s recent comments about Donald Trump seem like they came out of left field — he encouraged Muslims to “stand up” against those who use the Muslim faith to further their political agendas — it only reflects a political conscience Ali developed when he was a young man. In 1967, he received his draft notice to serve in Vietnam and outright refused. In an interview, he said plainly, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me n*****. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”
He wasn’t spared because he was a celebrity. Ali was stripped of his boxing title and sentenced to prison for draft evasion (he was later released on an appeal). Unable to box for a few years, Ali used his increased fame to travel around to colleges and speak on behalf of the civil rights movement. He returned to the ring in the 1970s and was able to defend his title until 1978, when he lost to Leon Spinks. Ali retired from boxing in 1980 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s one year later.
Ali’s personal life was complicated. He was married four times and reportedly committed adultery several times. He has nine children and an adopted son that he acknowledges, but there are apparently several more people who claim he is their father. There are stories about one of Ali’s sons living in squalor in Chicago and stories about how he wasn’t happy when his daughter Laila became a professional boxer.
He wasn’t perfect, and his family life wasn’t free of drama. But Ali leaves this world having fought hard to make it a better place for anyone who has ever felt oppressed. He reminds us to believe in ourselves, even when no one else does, and to take a stand for the causes that are important to us, no matter what is at stake.
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