A look back at the life and legacy of Muhammad Ali — the man who shook up the world

John Wight
5 min readJun 4

If anything, the passing of Muhammad Ali on June 3rd 2016, at age 74, bestowed even more greatness on the man — this in the knowledge that even after all he achieved, everything he went through both in and out of the ring, ultimately he was mortal just like the rest of us.

The words just trip off the tongue — ‘beauty’, ‘poetry’, ‘elegance’, ‘vision’, ‘defiance’, ‘anger’, ‘justice’, ‘rebellion’, ‘determination’, ‘compassion’, ‘grace’, ‘strength’. Ali owned all of these attributes and qualities and then some.

Who could have predicted when a young, gangly, loose-limbed boxer from Louisville, Kentucky by the name Cassius Clay took the light-heavyweight gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics — dismissed by the major sportswriters of the day as lacking the ability and power to go on and make any impact as a professional — that he would explode onto the world stage like a hurricane unleashed thereafter?

Just four years later not only did he become the youngest fighter to win the world heavyweight title at 22, with a performance against the fearsome Sonny Liston that induces wonder to this day, he did it while refusing to know his place as a black athlete in Jim Crow America. “Uppity negro” was one of the kinder insults thrown his way in a society in which the lived experience of black people was segregation, repression and injustice.

Prior to that first Liston fight in Miami, only those closest to him were aware of the anger, defiance and political and religious consciousness that was bubbling away under the surface of the playful braggadocio and exuberance that so endeared him to the sports pages.

It was just after the astonishing victory over Sonny Liston, when he “shook up the world”, that the 22-year-old newly crowned heavyweight champion revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, renamed the Black Muslims by reporters and TV broadcasters looking to court controversy. It was followed by a change of name — first from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, then to Muhammad Ali.

The result was tiny, marginal, and fundamentalist religious sect was propelled into nationl consciousness overnight to become the bete noire of a country that refused to countenance the…

John Wight

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