“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”
This one of the most quoted lines of Muhammad Ali which he said before fighting George Foreman – the undefeated World Heavyweight Champion. He went on to win that match with a knockout. We remember Ali as one of the greatest boxers of all time, but little do we know about his battles outside the ring. Controversies were like a second pair of gloves to Ali. His outspoken and candid character on various political, racial, and religious issues led to several debates.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was Ali’s original name. He entered the field of boxing with this name and reached the peak of his career bearing this name. However, in later years he changed his it to Muhammad Ali when he converted to Islam. This led to a huge media outburst. He explained that he had renounced his heritage of slavery and joined Islam; which was highly controversial at the time in America. He was also an influential advocate for the disenfranchised African-Americans and the religion of Islam. He actively took part in this racial tension, without any concern for his burgeoning career. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, two of the greatest civil-rights activists were Ali’s mentors. In the public’s eyes, he transformed from a boxing champion to an activist.
In the year 1967, Ali was called to be sent to Vietnam to fight the war. Ali, among numerous others, opposed this war and refused as a conscientious objector to be ragdolls for the Government. This was an offense against the law for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. However, Ali got out with a bond and fought a legal battle. In an interview, Ali said
“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? ….I don’t have to go and shoot them. Just take me to jail”.
Eventually, his boxing license was revoked and his Heavyweight title taken back. He fought his case in the supreme court and won almost three years later. However, this caused a hiatus in his boxing career and he had to start again from nothing. Ali later reclaimed his title as the World Heavyweight Champion after seven long years.
In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which impaired his motor and speech functions. This forced him to retire from boxing. However, this did not stop him from making the world a better place. He traveled around the world and made several charitable donations of food, medicines, clothes among others. Ali negotiated with the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain for the release of fourteen American hostages. He even stood with Nelson Mandela against apartheid.
In 1996, he was given the honor of lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremonies of The Summer Olympics in Atlanta. In 2005, Ali received the Medal of Freedom at the White House. He has been given the title of ‘The boxer of the century’, ‘Sportsman of the century’, and ‘Sports personality of the century’. He died at the age of 74, on June 3, 2016. Even after his death, he continues to inspire millions of children around the world and stands as the beacon of goodwill.