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

John Wight
5 min readJun 4, 2023

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 at the time 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 had so endeared him to the sports pages up to this point.

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 national consciousness overnight to become the bete noire of a country that refused to countenance the possibility of its black population turning on it. As for Ali, he now found himself a hate figure to rank alongside Benedict Arnold in the eyes of mainstream American society and its media manipulators.

Where the Nation of Islam connected with Ali was in its assertion of defiance in the face of the long history of oppression suffered by black people in America, along with the then crazy idea that not only were blacks equal to whites they were better.

In Ali’s possession the heavyweight championship of the world transcended boxing, even sports. With him it assumed the mantle of political and social banner, behind which a new generation of black men and women could assemble to declare their pride in being black in defiance of a system in which their parents and grandparents had been left in no doubt they were less than human.

Ali paid a terrible price for his apostasy, excoriated by sportswriters, commentators, politicians, and even black leaders of the day. People lined up to attack both him and his beliefs, and ticket sales for his fights plummeted. And this was before his stance on the war in Vietnam, when after being reclassified for selection he told a reporter that “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

It was a quote that unleashed the forces of hell, with Ali openly accused of treason in newspapers across the country.

Most men would have buckled under this kind of public animus but he seemed to grow in stature, finding new purpose as a torchbearer of resistance to the war and the contradictions it exposed regarding the suppurating sore of racist injustice in his own country.

For refusing the draft he was stripped of his title and faced prison. Exile from the ring followed and he spent the next three years struggling to make ends meet. But Ali’s shadow continued to loom large over the heavyweight championship, which was cheapened by his absence.

If the beginning of his exile he was roundly hated and despised, with the Civil Rights movement building to become the social phenomenon it did, and with the anti-Vietnam War movement doing likewise, three years later he found himself raised to the status of a folk hero, lauded where before he’d been vilified, respected for sticking to his principles no matter the cost.

His return to the ring in 1970 against Jerry Quarry in Atlanta was a seminal moment in US sporting and cultural history. Celebrities packed the ringside seats as Ali received the adulation of the thousands in attendance and the millions watching the fight on TV or listening to it on radio across the world.

The legend from that moment on is well known. A trilogy of epic fights against his ring nemesis Joe Frazier, the unbelievable victory over George Foreman, fighting most of his first fight against Ken Norton with a broken jaw, and of course the sad decline and slide into Parkinson’s.

Now he’s gone.

He was more than a boxer and he was more than an icon. He was a man with the moral courage to speak truth to power no matter the consequences and no matter the cost to himself. This alone marks him out as a legend.

“Unhappy is the land that is in need of a hero,” Brecht reminds us. Muhammad Ali lived in just such an unhappy land and he was every inch a hero.

“I shook up the world! I shook up the world!” he once memorably announced.

Yes Muhammad, you certainly did.

Muhammad Ali

Born 17 January 1942

Died 3 June 2016 (aged 74)

End.

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John Wight

Writing on politics, culture, sport and whatever else. Please consider taking out a subscription at https://medium.com/@johnwight1/membership