I’m young, I’m handsome, I’m fast, I’m pretty and can’t possibly be beat.
They must fall in the round I call.”
– Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., age 16
Those were the words of a confident young man from the West End of Louisville, Kentucky. The year was 1958 and back then, Jim Crow held a tight grip on the southern states. But not even the burden of racism could contend with the bravado of a teenaged Cassius. After all, it was he who would grow up to become the most famous person in the world, literally.
From the beginning, he talked a good game and from the beginning, he had the skills to back up his lyrics. He was a man of power and poise, one whom, at 18, won Olympic gold, and six years later, embraced Islam and became Muhammad Ali. We believed that he could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee and we watched him perfect the “rope-a-dope” while defending title-after-title, round-after-round. Ironically, his battles outside of the ring would require just as much finesse, which he realized when he refused to be drafted in the military. He paid dearly for it – losing his passport and boxing privileges for the three-plus years – but he stood his ground and proved his point. He always did.
By the mid-1970s, he headed to the Motherland for the now-infamous Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila bouts – defeating George Foreman and the late “Smokin’” Joe Frazier, respectively – and had the world’s full attention. He rarely disappointed, but soon after he hung up his gloves, we began to see a change in him. Just as we cheered for him in the ring, we prayed for him when Parkinson’s disease began to dim his light a bit. We could still see the man inside, though, the one who’d conquered so many firsts and seemed to have so much more to do and say.
Muhammad Ali remained the ultimate champion because he persevered. When he was no longer able to use his voice or swing his fists as quickly as he once did, he refocused his energy on humanitarian work. A sportsman at heart, he made history, yet again, by lighting the torch for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and was later named as a United Messenger of Peace by Kofi Annan. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, the same year he opened the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in his hometown to raise awareness and funds in the fight against the disease.
If you weren’t around to experience his magic during his prime, perhaps your parents or grandparents have shared their memories of him. Or maybe you got a glimpse of his life via the big screen in films like The Greatest, in which he starred as himself, the Academy Award-winning documentary, When We Were Kings, or the 2004 biopic, Ali. He lived quite a life and leaves behind an incredible legacy. Muhammad Ali was one of a kind and he sure was pretty.