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The People's Champion

Monday, May 7, 2018

Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. is one of the greatest sporting figures to have ever lived. He had it all, the athletic ability, courageousness, humility, charisma, charm, and of course, the mouth to match. He is known to the world as “The Greatest” and even to this day, nicknames of the same caliber are unheard of. There was no one like him and there will be never be anyone else like him.

Clay’s extraordinary career all started at the age of 12 when someone stole his beloved red and white Schwinn bicycle. Shortly after realizing his bike was gone, he filed a complaint to a police officer while at the same time vowing to pummel the thief if he ever had the chance. As fate would have it, the officer, Joe Martin, just so happened to also be a boxing trainer. From then on, Martin took Clay under his wing and just a month and a half later, Clay had already won his first fight.

Clay’s boxing career is a legendary one from start to finish. At 18, just two years after he started training under Martin, he had already claimed two Golden Glove titles, two Amatuer Union National titles and a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Through each and every fight, Clay’s lack of shyness and boastful attitude earned him the nickname “The Louisville Lip,” which was befitting for the loud-mouthed lionheart champion. At the end of his amatuer career, Clay’s record was 100 wins to 8 losses, a remarkable 93 percent win-rate.

On October 29, 1960, Clay’s fought his first professional boxing match. The fight looked like an easy one and it traveled down its usual course with Clay dominating, laying down the heat both verbally and physically and ending in a win. One would assume that the transition from amatuer fights to professional would have some sort of effect but it didn’t seem to phase him.

Four years, 19 fights and 15 knockouts later, Clay got his first shot at a heavyweight title. It would be against Sonny Liston, who was undoubtedly a fearsome opponent. Clay being Clay, however, taunted Liston endlessly saying that he would end the fight in a knockout, which he did. In the seventh round at “10,” while Liston was still glued to the mat, Clay was declared victor and crowned heavyweight champion of the world. Clay was too fast and too powerful. As he put it best, he “floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.” He was exuberant, confident, and looked invincible.

With all the doubt placed on Clay’s shoulders now lifted, he assured the world that he was really as good as he said he was. Soon after he beat Liston, he pointed at nearby news reporters that had previously doubted him, shouting, “I told you, I told you, I told you exactly what I was going to do and I did it!” In a follow-up interview shortly after he yelled into the microphone for the world to hear, “I don’t have a mark on my face, and I just upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned 22. I must be the greatest! I told the world!” And from that moment on, a new era was born. An era of greatness. The era of Cassius Clay.

“I’ve wrestled with alligators. I’ve tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed
    lightning. And threw thunder in jail” (photo credit: Evening Standard).

For the next five years, Clay would reign supreme in the ring, untouchable. He had triumphed over nine other young bulls that were gunning for his belt and of those nine, seven ended in knockouts. He was in his prime, 29-0, “The People’s Champion” as they called him but everything got flipped upside down when he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Shortly before being drafted, Clay converted to Islam and his newfound religious beliefs conflicted with the war. Many people at the time stood up and supported his decision but many more disagreed. Clay, as he always had, was speaking up about how he felt and what he believed in but he was still fined and stripped of his heavyweight title and boxing license, leaving him unable to box for the next three years. Clay didn’t mind much, however, as boxing wasn’t his “main fight.”

In the following three years, Clay gave speeches at college campuses and various other places here and there protesting the war and bringing awareness to discrimination. No matter what, he always stood up for what he believed in. He didn’t just shake boxing. He shook up to the world with encouraging, truthful statements, and an honest heart.

During all the adversity and publicity surrounding Clay and his views, he managed to get the attention of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam at the time. Elijah had recognized Clay’s strength and loyalty to his religious beliefs and thought it appropriate to bestow upon him a new name: Muhammad Ali. Prior to adopting his new name, Clay never really resonated with his original one, saying “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means ‘beloved of God,’ and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”

After three years went by, Ali had his boxing license reinstated and in October of the same year he returned to the ring, winning two fights in his usual fashion. Five months later he got the chance to reclaim his heavyweight title in “The Fight of The Century” against Joe Frazier, but sadly, his flawless 31-0 record was shattered.

Fourteen wins and another loss later, including a non-title win against Joe Frazier, Ali fought another championship title match against George Foreman, which went down in history as “The Rumble In the Jungle.” Ali won this fight and finally reclaimed his heavyweight title after seven years. He then defended his title 11 more times, looking like “The Greatest” once again, most notably in the “Thrilla in Manilla” fight against Joe Frazier.

In his 58th professional fight, Ali lost to Leon Spinks, losing both his title and belt once again. Seven months later he got his revenge by becoming the first man to ever win the heavyweight title three times. Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and after losing his last two fights in 1981, Muhammad Ali retired at the age of 39 with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses, with 37 of those wins ending in knockouts.

Three years later, Muhammad Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, but that never stopped him from embracing his generous, charitable, kind, and compassionate personality. Ali showed lots of support to foundations such as Make A Wish and Special Olympics. He delivered millions of dollars worth of medical aid to Cuba, delivered food and supplies to those in need in Mexico and various other African countries. He traveled to Iraq to negotiate the release of 15 hostages of his own accord and founded the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, which has single handedly brought Parkinson awareness into the light of the world.

Muhammad Ali was “The Greatest” and everyone from past opponents to kids around the globe knew it. That's why in 1990 Muhammad Ali was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. It's why in 1996, he was given the honor to light the cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics. In 1999, he was voted the sporting personality of the century by BBC and in that same year he was voted sportsman of the century by Sports Illustrated. Ali was named Ring Magazine’s fighter of the year five times and in 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Muhammad Ali was strong mentally and physically and defines the phrase “Never give up.” He sacrificed his blood for bravery, sweat for grit, and tears for character. He was intelligent and kind and always stood up for what he believed in. He was indeed one of the best boxers to ever step into the ring due to his speed, mental strength and unique style but he was also an outstanding individual outside of the ring due to his leadership, perseverance and bravery. He influenced countless lives in a positive way teaching the world to pursue their imagination and to stand up for what they believed in, what is right. He motivated the world saying things like "He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life" and "If my mind can conceive it, if my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it." Muhammad Ali was one of a kind. He had the commitment, the excellence, the results, the passion, the toughness, the discipline and the truth. He had everything it took, everything you needed, and in the end, above all else, he had greatness.