Boxing legend Muhammad Ali died on Friday (June 4) at the age of 74. The end came after a 32-year battle with Parkinson’s disease. “The Greatest is gone. We might never see one like him again,” Time magazine said in a moving tribute titled, “Why Muhammad Ali Matters to Everyone”.
Time’s tribute read: “Ali, the former Cassius Clay, was not just an athlete who embodied the times in which he lived. He shaped them. His conscientious objection to the Vietnam war, and reasoned rants against a country fighting for freedom on the other side of the globe, while its own black citizens were denied basic rights of their own, energized a generation”.
Clay’s ancestors were slaves on the plantation of his namesake, a Kentucky politician who was Lincoln’s minister to Russia. When he was around eight or nine, an old white man had dragged him by his collar and shouted “shut your mouth, little n—-r”.
In school, Clay was a lightweight. He was ranked 376th out of 391 students at Louisville’s Central High School. But the school’s principal excused the academic failings, telling his faculty: “One day our greatest claim to fame is going to be that we knew Cassius Clay, or taught him.” Clay would be seen shadowboxing while dancing down the hallway, stopping his fists within an inch of an unsuspecting classmate’s nose.
Clay’s rise and reign in the boxing ring is legendary, but it was as much his antics — and his mouth — outside the ring that transformed the man born Cassius Clay into a household name as Muhammad Ali. He once calculated he had taken 29,000 punches to the head and made $57 million in his pro career.
‘The Greatest’ will be best remembered for the words he spoke when drafted for by the United States government into the Vietnam War in 1967. "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," he famously said. "And shoot them for what? 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. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail." “So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years,” Ali said.
Ali lived to see a black man in the White House, and attended Barack Obama’s inauguration. “Asked why he is so universally beloved, he holds up a shaking hand, fingers spread wide, and says, ‘It’s because of this. I’m more human now. It’s the God in people that connects me to them,’” Obama wrote in USA Today in 2009. “This is the Muhammad Ali who inspires us today – the man who believes real success comes when we rise after we fall; who has shown us that through undying faith and steadfast love, each of us can make this world a better place. He is and always will be the champ.”