Why Muhammad Ali Matters to Everyone

46 minute read

The Greatest is gone. We might never see one like him again.

Muhammad Ali, the lyrical heavyweight showman who thrilled the globe with his sublime boxing style, unpredictable wit, and gentle generosity – especially later in life – died on Friday. He was 74. 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. Ali refused to serve in Vietnam, was convicted of draft evasion, and stripped of the heavyweight crown he won from Sonny Liston in 1964.

Imagine, for a moment, a 21st-century athlete who could command an audience with presidents and the pope, the Dalai Lama, Castro, Idi Amin and Saddam Hussein. Ali might have been the most famous man on earth. Disease robbed Ali of his speech late in life. But his peacekeeping trips, fundraising efforts for Parkinson’s research, and support for UNICEF and the Special Olympics and many more charitable organizations were more powerful than his poetry. (And in truth, his jabbering wasn’t as pretty as Ali claimed to be. His characterization of Joe Frazier, for example, as a “gorilla” was sophomoric, even if it did rhyme with “Thrilla” and “Manila.”)

“Muhammad Ali was not just Muhammad Ali the greatest, the African-American pugilist; he belonged to everyone,” poet Maya Angelou wrote in the 2001 book Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World. “That means that his impact recognizes no continent, no language, no color, no ocean.”

Ali was also a reminder of what boxing has lost. Ali’s classic fights, like “The Rumble in the Jungle” and the “The Thrilla in Manila” were masterpieces of the form. Though Ali fought George Foreman in Zaire, the electricity spilled into your living room. “Bap! Bap! Bap!” Ali told TIME, describing his fight strategy before his first bout with Frazier in 1971, the so-called “Fight of the Century,” which he lost. “I jab him once, twice, three times. Dance away. I move in again. Bam. Bam. Bam. I hit him five times. He hits me one time. I back away. I’m moving around him. Bim. Bim. Bim. I get him again. He’s movin’ in, ain’t reaching me because he’s too small to reach me. He’s reachin’ and strainin’ with those hooks, and they’re getting longer and longer. And now he’s lunging and jumping, and that’s when I started popping and smoking.”

From Bike Theft to Boxer: Clay’s Beginnings

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., in Louisville, at 6:35 p.m. on Jan. 17, 1942. His father, Cassius Sr., was a sign painter “with minor artistic talents and a major taste for gin,” according to Sports Illustrated. His mother, Odesssa, worked as a household domestic. Clay’s ancestors were slaves on the plantation of his namesake, a Kentucky politician who was Lincoln’s minister to Russia. He had an Irish great-grandfather, named Abe Grady. But no trace of white blood could shield young Cassius from the slights of segregated Louisville. For example, Clay said that when he was 8 or 9, an old white man harassed him while he played with friends near the railroad tracks, dragging him by his collar and shouting “shut your mouth, little n—-r” as Clay resisted (another man, the story goes, interceded and saved Clay from further harm). “Why can’t I be rich?” Clay once asked his father. Cassius Sr. touched his son’s hand. “Look here,” he said. “That’s why you can’t be rich.”

Clay came out swinging, and scored his first knockout against his own mother. “When he was a few months old, he looked like a military boxer,” Odessa said during a 1978 episode of the television program This Is Your Life featuring Ali. “And when he was 18 months old, he was very strong and had big muscled arms.” His mother said that one day, Clay waved his arms around, as babies do, and punched her tooth out. Clay would jabber “gee, gee, gee, gee” by the side of his crib, so his family started calling him GG. Later, after he became Golden Gloves champion, Clay said he was trying to say “Golden Gloves.” Odessa told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser: “By the time he was four, he had all the confidence in the world.”

In October of 1954, when Clay was 12, he and a friend rode their bicycles to a Louisville bazaar and spent the day eating free popcorn and candy. When it was time to head home, Clay discovered that his red-and-white Schwinn had been stolen. A white police officer named Joe Martin was downstairs, in a boxing gym, and a crying Clay reported the theft to him. Clay swore that we would beat up whoever took it. Martin, who also happened to train fighters and produced a local television show, Tomorrow’s Champions, showcasing Louisville’s best boxing talent, responded: “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people you’re going to whup.” The world’s greatest boxer was born.

Clay started training the next day at Martin’s gym. Just six-weeks later, the 89-pound nothing-weight won a three-round decision in his ring debut. “He didn’t know a left hook from a kick in the ass,” Martin told Sports Illustrated. “But he developed quite rapidly.” Clay was a maniacal worker, and would sometimes race the school bus for 20 blocks – and always claim to beat it, of course. Clay won 100 out of 108 amateur bouts, and two consecutive Amateur Athletic Union Championships, in 1959 and 1960, both as a light heavyweight. “His secret was his unusual eye speed,” Martin said. “It was blinding. The only other athlete I ever saw who had that kind of eye speed was Ted Williams. When he started fighting, Cassius was so fast with his eyes that you could give a guy a screen door and he wouldn’t hit Cassius 15 times with it in 15 rounds.”

In the classroom, Clay was a lightweight. He was ranked 376th out of 391 students at Louisville’s Central High School. But the school’s principal, a tall, scholarly man named Atwood Wilson who had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, excused Clay’s academic failings. “One day our greatest claim to fame is going to be that we knew Cassius Clay, or taught him,” Wilson told his faculty. Wilson would introduce Clay as the “next heavyweight champion of the world” at assemblies, and warn misbehaving students: “You act up, I’m going to turn Cassius Clay on you.”

During his high school years, Clay showed little interest in the civil rights movement, though he did start to craft his showman act. Clay would shadowbox while dancing down the hallway, stopping his fists within an inch of an unsuspecting classmate’s nose. “I’m the greatest!” Clay would yell during his school bus races. “He always made a joke out of everything,” a former classmate, Dorothy McIntyre Kennedy, told Sports Illustrated. Kennedy said Clay would endlessly declare his love for her. “I never took him seriously,” she said. “It was like he never wanted to grow up. He wanted to be this person – the class clown.”

After qualifying for the 1960 Rome Olympics, Clay almost skipped the trip. Airplanes terrified him. “He wanted to take a boat or something,” Martin said in Hauser’s definitive 1991 oral history, Muhmamad Ali: His Life And Times. After a three-hour chat in Louisville’s Central Park, Martin convinced Clay that if he wanted the heavyweight title, he had to go to Rome and win gold. Fighting in the 178-lb. light-heavyweight division, Clay cruised through his first three fights before meeting Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland in the finals. Pietrzykowski had Clay beat through the first two rounds, but in the last round, Clay unfurled a steady stream of combinations at that his worn-out opponent couldn’t handle.

The charismatic Clay strutted around Olympic village, where he was known as the mayor. “His peers loved him,” Wilma Rudolph, who won three-sprinting golds in Rome, told Sports Illustrated. “Everybody wanted to see him. Everybody wanted to be near him. Everybody wanted to talk to him. And he talked all the time. I always hung in the background, not knowing what he was going to say.” Clay loved showing off his hardware. “He slept with it,” Rudolph said, referring to the gold medal. “He went to the cafeteria with it. He never took it off. No one cherished it the way he did.” At the medals ceremony, a reporter from the Soviet Union asked Clay how it felt to represent a country in which racial segregation was tolerated. “Tell you’re readers we’ve got qualified people working on that problem, and I’m not worried about the outcome,” Clay responded. “To me, the U.S.A. is still the best country in the world, counting yours. It may be hard to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.” After Clay became more attuned to the tumult of the 1960s, he regretted that remark as a sign of his naiveté.

When Clay arrived back in Louisville, he was greeted as a hero–although his gold medal could not get him a glass of juice at a Jim Crow luncheonette. The mayor, a group of cheerleaders, and 300 fans greeted him at the tarmac. There, Clay recited an early poem: “To make America the greatest is my goal/So I beat the Russian, I beat the Pole/And for the USA won the Medal of Gold/Italians said ‘You’re greater than the Cassius his old.” Not his best effort, but as the world would soon find out, Clay was just getting started.

Road to the Championship

With the backing of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, a collection of 11 white businessmen – 10 of whom were millionaires – who each invested $2,800 to launch Clay’s career, Clay turned pro. (One member of the group, former investment counselor Bill Faversham, had to put in just $1,400, a discount that rewarded his organizational efforts). Clay got a $10,000 bonus, a $4,000 salary, allexpenses paid, and a 50-50 split of all purses. Three days after signing themanagement deal, Clay made his pro debut at Louisville’s Freedom Hall on October 29, 1960, before 6,000 fans. He beat Tunney Hunsaker, a part-time fighter who was also chief of police of Fayetteville, West Virginia. “He’s a bum,” said Clay, who often cruised around Louisville in his pink Cadillac. “I’ll lick him easy.” Clay beat the lumpy Hunsaker in a six-round decision. “He was fast as lighting, and he could hit from every position without getting hit,” Hunsaker said in Ali: His Life and Times. “I tried just about every trick I knew to throw him off balance, but he was just too good.” A local West Virginia attorney asked Hunsaker what he thought about the young fighter. Hunsaker replied: “He’ll be heavyweight champ of the world someday.”

Clay trained with former heavyweight champ Archie Moore, who was still fighting at 44. They did not mesh. Rather than listen to Moore’s lessons in power punching, Clay challenged Moore to spar with him. “I wanted him to respect me as a man and as an instructor and fall in line with the learning process,” Moore told Hauser. “And that seemed to amuse and sometimes anger him.” (Two years later, Clay defeated Moore in a fourth-round TKO. “Archie’s been living off the fat of the land I’m here to give him his pension plan,” Clay mused before the Moore fight. “When you come to the fight, don’t block the aisle, don’t block the door. You will all go home after round four”).

After the Moore experiment turned sour, Clay still needed a trainer. The Louisville gurus who nurtured Clay’s amateur career were deemed too inexperienced to help Clay flourish as a pro. On the advice of a boxing bigwig from New York, the Louisville syndicate hired veteran Angelo Dundee. In December of 1960, Clay stated working with Dundee in Miami’s 5th Street Gym, which served as a kind of carnival headquarters for the Clay-Ali operation, home to characters like Drew “Bundini” Brown, the yessiest of Clay’s yes-men. Dundee would remain in Clay’s corner for the next 21 years. “I smoothed Cassius out and put some snap in his punches,” Dundee told TIME in 1963.

Clay won 18 straight fights over the next three years; only three of them went the distance. “Muhammad Ali showed something no one had ever seen in a heavyweight before,” boxing historian Bert Sugar later told USA Today. “Movement.” At a time when boxing’s mob influence turned off many fight fans, the charismatic Clay, who overwhelmed the airwaves of each city he fought with his proclamations of all-time greatness, was a blessing for the game. And Clay was aware of his appeal. “Boxing’s dying because everyone is so quiet,” Clay told Sports Illustrated in his Louisville hotel room in October 1961, before he knocked out Alex Miteff. “I’m an unpredictable young man with a raggedy pink Cadillac . . . Roger Maris, the world of space – this is an age of records and record-breaking. If you don’t break some records you’re a no one. I want to break some boxing records. I want to be the youngest heavyweight champion in history. I have to be first in the soup line.”

Wrote TIME, in 1963: “People who hadn’t been to a fight in ten years began turning out to see him box. Half of them adored him; half wanted to be on hand when the loudmouth got his comeuppance. Everyone wanted to know what happened next.”

Clay’s career was headed straight towards a title bout with the reigning heavyweight champ, Sonny Liston. And Clay waged an unprecedented smack-talking campaign to secure his shot. “Sonny Liston is nothing,” Clay said on a 1963 album he released for Columbia records, modestly entitled I Am The Greatest. The LP was simply a collection of Clay’s outlandish testimonials, plus his strained crooning the B.B. King classic “Stand By Me.” The title of one track: “I Am The Double Greatest.” Almost needless to say, it was the first of its kind. “The man can’t talk,” Clay said on the album. “The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he’ll need falling lessons … After I whup Sonny Liston, I’m gonna whup those little green men from Jupiter and Mars. And looking at them won’t scare me none because they can’t be no uglier than Sonny Liston.”

In July of 1963, Clay trailed Liston to Las Vegas, site of Liston’s second fight with Floyd Patterson, who Liston had knocked out ten months earlier to capture the heavyweight crown. One night before the fight, Clay stood against a casino wall and taunted Liston as he played the tables. “’Look at that big ugly bear,’” Clay said. “’He can’t even shoot craps.’” After Liston pummeled Paterson in just two minutes and ten seconds, Clay jumped into the ring. “The fight was a disgrace,” Clay shouted into a microphone. “Liston is a tramp; I’m the champ. I want that big ugly bear. I want that big bum as soon as I can get him. I’m tired of talking. If I can’t whip that bum, I’ll leave the country.” Clay’s barking paid off. That November, he signed a contract to fight Liston, despite the objections of the Louisville investment group, which felt that Clay needed more experience. Clay’s sponsors thought Liston would destroy him.

The fight, scheduled for February 25th in Miami, was almost called off, however, because Clay started making new friends; friends who would radically alter Clay’s world-view, acceptable to many whites who were already straining to support a brash black fighter; friends who would help Cassius Clay, soon-to-be Muhammad Ali, become the most divisive, iconic athlete of modern times.

Floating Like a Butterfly, Stinging Like a Bee

Muhammad Ali first heard about Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, at a Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in 1959. He read a Nation of Islam newspaper before going to Rome. “I didn’t pay much attention to it,” Ali told Hauser. “But lots of things were working in my mind.” Ali said that the death of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old mutilated in Mississippi in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman, had a deep effect on him. “In my own life, there were places I couldn’t go, places I couldn’t eat,” Ali said. “I won a gold medal representing the United States at the Olympic Games, and when I came home to Louisville, I still got treated like a n—-r. There were some restaurants I couldn’t get served in. Some people kept calling me ‘boy.’”

In 1961 Clay met Sam Saxton, a follower of Elijah Muhammad, while he was selling Muhammad Speaks newspapers on a Miami street. Saxton invited Clay to a Miami mosque. “The first time I truly felt special in my life was when I walked into the Muslim temple in Miami,” Ali later said. “A man named Brother John was speaking, and the first words I heard him say were, ‘Why are we called Negroes?’ It’s the white man’s way of taking away our identity. If you see a Chinaman coming, you know he comes from China. If you see a Cuban coming, you know he comes from Cuba. If you see a Canadian coming, you know he comes from Canada. What country is called Negro?’” The Nation’s separatist philosophy spoke to Clay. “I liked what I heard, and wanted to learn more,” Ali said. “I had respect for Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, but I was taking a different road.”

To the Nation of Islam — also known as the Black Muslims —whites were evil. During the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, when whites were brutally cracking down on the African-American fight for equality, Elijah Muhammad’s followers had plenty of high-profile evidence to back their claims. The public caughtwind of Clay’s new radical religious affiliation in early 1964, when a newspaper reported that one of Muhammad’s most powerful disciples, Malcolm X, traveled with Clay from Miami to New York, where Clay addressed a Muslim rally. In a subsequent interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Clay admitted his association with the Muslims. “Integration is wrong,” Clay said. “The white people don’t want integration. I don’t believe in forcing it, and the Muslims don’t believe in it. So what’s wrong about the Muslims?” On February 7, just eighteen days before the Liston fight, a Miami Herald story quoted Clay’s father confirming that his son was a Muslim. Cassius Clay Sr. accused the Nation of Islam of brainwashing his son, and stealing his money.

For white segregationists in Florida, Clay’s friendship with Malcolm X, whom Elijah Muhammad had censured for his insensitive remarks about John F. Kennedy after the president’s assassination – and because he began to see Malcolm X as a threat – was particularly revolting. The Clay-Liston promoter, thinking he would not be able to fill the Miami convention hall, threatened to call off the fight unless Malcolm X, who was staying with Clay in Miami, skipped town. Malcolm X agreed to leave Miami, though he returned on the night of the fight.

The bout was on, and the weigh-in was Clay’s last chance to lob psychological missiles at Liston. Clay was manic at the weigh-in, held in a freight area of the Miami Convention Hall the morning of the fight. He wore a blue denim jacket embroidered with the words “Bear Hunter” to the arena, and incessantly shouted, along with Bundini Brown, “Float like a butterfly! Sting like a bee!” while banging a walking stick against the floor. His eyes nearly popped out of his skull. “I’m going to eat you alive!” he shouted at Liston when Liston entered the weigh-in. Bill Faversham of the Louisville group and Sugar Ray Robinson held onto Clay, who looked ready to attack Liston. Liston seemed distraught. Some sportswriters thought Clay was mentally unstable, or having some kind of seizure. He more than doubled his pulse rate, and doctors threatened to call off the fight unless his blood pressure and pulse came down later in the day (they did).

Clay backed up all the barking. “He whipped Sonny Liston as thoroughly as a man can be whipped,” Sports Illustrated wrote. “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the greatest,” Clay shouted, arms raised and shimmying in the ring, after Liston did not come out for the seventh round, thanks to what he said was a bum shoulder (some critics suspected he just threw in the towel.) “Well, I’m still pretty,” Clay crowed to reporters afterwards.

But to many, Clay was no longer just an athlete. Two days after the fight Clay and Malcolm X talked to reporters while they ate breakfast at a Miami motel. “Clay is the finest Negro athlete I have ever known, the man who will mean more to his people than any athlete before him,” Malcolm X said. “He is more than Jackie Robinson was, because Robinson is the white man’s hero.” Clay confirmed, for the first time in no uncertain words, that he was a member of the Nation of Islam. “Black Muslims is a press word,” Clay said. “It’s not a legitimate name. The real name is Islam. That means peace. Islam is a religion and there are 750 million people all over the world who believe in it, and I’m one of them. I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be, when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blowed up.”

The night of March 6, 1964, would further alienate many Americans. ‘This Clay name has no meaning,’” Elijah Muhammad pronounced in a radio broadcast. “I hope he will accept being called by a better name. Muhammad Ali is what I will give him as long as he believes in Allah and follows me.’”

The Enemy

Ali called the name-change “one of the most important things” to happen in his life. “It freed me from the identity given to my family by my slavemasters,” he told Hauser. “Clay,” Ali told a television interviewer during this time. “Only meant dirt with no ingredients.” Ali’s Nation of Islam loyalty strengthened. In June of 1965 he sought a marriage annulment from his first wife, a cocktail waitress from Chicago named Sonji Roi, less than a year after they married, because she did not conform to Islamic tenets like modest dress.

Malcolm X split from the Nation of Islam in 1964, soon after returning from a trip to Mecca that altered his separatist views on race relations. Ali, however, firmly sided with Elijah Muhammad in the dispute. In February of 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom: his supports have long suspected that Elijah Muhammad ordered the hit. “I believed that Malcolm was wrong, and Elijah was God’ messenger,” Ali later said. “I was in Miami, training, when I heard Malcolm had been shot to death. Some brother came to my apartment andtold me what happened. It was a pity and a disgrace he died like that, because what Malcolm saw was right, and after he left us, we went to his way anyway. Color didn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart, soul, and mind that counts.”

In May of 1965, Ali defended his title against Liston, knocking him out in the first round. Though many incredulous fans thought Liston took a bath — the deciding blow was dubbed “The Phantom Punch” —Ali-Liston II produced what might be the most famous sports photograph of all-time, snapped by Neil Leifer of Sports Illustrated: Ali hovering over a fallen Liston, fist cocked, screaming “get up and fight, sucker.” Six months later, Ali fought former heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson, who Ali dubbed “the rabbit” because he was “afraid of his own shadow,” in Las Vegas. “No decent person can look up to a champion whose credo is ‘I hate whites,’” Paterson said before the fight. “I have nothing but contempt for the Black Muslims and that for which they stand. The image of a Black Muslim as the world heavyweight champion disgraces the sport and the nation. Cassius Clay must be beaten and the Black Muslims’ scourge removed from boxing.’”

Ali labeled Patterson an “Uncle Tom,” and replied to Patterson’s taunts with racially-charged rhymes. “I’m gonna put him flat on his back/So that he will start acting black/Because when he was champ he didn’t do as he should/He tried to force himself into an all-white neighborhood.” Ali toyed with Patterson throughout the fight, and scored a 12th round TKO. At just 23, Ali now had a 22-0 record, and was the undisputed heavyweight champ. Some experts wondered if Ali would ever lose a fight.

He would lose much more — the prime years of his career. In January 1964, Ali took the military qualifying examination. But his mental aptitude score was below the minimum requirement to be drafted. “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest,” he quipped. With the Vietnam War escalating, however, the military lowered the minimums. So in February of 1966, Ali was reclassified 1-A. His request for a deferment would be denied. When reporters hounded him for his reaction, Ali uttered words that would make him a national pariah, while at the same framed the debate about America’s role in the Vietnam conflict. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

Ali voiced his contempt for American policy before the anti-war movement gained steam. Newspaper editorial writers called Ali “the most disgusting character in memory to appear on the sports scene” and the “bum of all time.” The governor of Illinois labeled Ali as “disgusting,” while the governor of Maine said Ali “should be held in utter contempt by every patriotic American.” Ali next fight, against Ernie Terrell, was scheduled for Chicago in late March of 1966, but the Chicago Tribune urged the Illinois State Athletic Commission to cancel the bout. The state caved to the political pressure, and few other cities wanted any part of Ali: the Terrell fight was eventually moved to Toronto, though by this point Terrell himself backed out (a Canadian, George Chuvalo, filled in and actually went the distance with Ali before losing a one-sided decision). Media and politicians called for a boycott of the fight. “The heavyweight champion of the world turns my stomach,” said Frank Clark, a congressman from Pennsylvania.

By refusing to join the military, Ali was costing himself millions in endorsement money. Still, he didn’t flinch. “The white man want me hugging on a white women, or endorsing some whiskey, or some skin bleach, lightening the skin when I’m promoting black as best,” Ali told Sports Illustrated in 1966. “They want me advertising all this stuff that’d make me rich but hurt so many others. But by me sacrificing a little wealth I’m helping so many others. Little children can come by and meet the champ. Little kids in the alleys and slums of Florida and New York, they can come and see me where they never could walk up on Patterson and Liston. Can’t see them n—–s when they come to town! So the white man see the power in this. He see that I’m getting away with the Army backing offa me . . .They see who’s not flying the flag, not going in the Army; we get more respect.”

Ali filed for status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, on the grounds that his religion prevented him from “participating in wars on the side of nonbelievers, and this is a Christian country, not a Muslim country. We are not, according to the Holy Qur’an, to even as much as aid in passing a cup of water to the wounded.” His conscientious objector claim bounced around the court system until April 28th, 1967, when Ali was to be inducted into the U.S. Army, in Houston. When the name “Cassius Marcellus Clay” was called out at the induction hearing, Ali refused to step forward. Ali was now facing a give-year prison sentence. He was immediately stripped of his titles and boxing licenses: Ali, 25, would not fight for another three-and-a-half years. “I can’t take part in nothing,” he’d later say, “where I’d help the shooting of dark Asiatic people, who haven’t lynched me, deprived me of my freedom, justice and equality, or assassinated my leaders.”

Exile – And Return

In June of 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion and given a five-year sentence. Though the appeals process kept him out of jail, no one let him back in the ring. “I canvassed 27 states tying to get him a license to fight,” Howard Conrad, one of Ali’s promoters, told TIME years later. “I even tried to set up a fight in a bullring across the border from San Diego, and they wouldn’t let him leave the country. Overnight he became a n—-r again. He threw his life away on one toss of the dice for something he believed in. Not many folks do that.”

While Ali was in exile, the man who struggled with reading, who finished ranked near the bottom of his high school class, made $2,500 a pop lecturing on college campuses (he also tried his hand at a Broadway musical, and received surprisingly positive reviews). “We’ve been brainwashed,” Ali said in one speech. “Everything good is supposed to be white. We look at Jesus, and we see a white with blond hair and blue eyes. Now, I’m sure there’s a heaven in the sky and colored folks die and go to heaven. Where are the colored angels? They must be in the kitchen preparing milk and honey. We look at Miss America, we see white. We look at Miss World, we see white. We look at Miss Universe, we see white. Even Tarzan, the king of the jungle in black Africa, he’s white. White Owl Cigars. White Swan soap. White Cloud tissue paper, White Rain hair rinse, White Tornado floor wax. All the good cowboys ride the white horses and wear white hats. Angel food cake is the white cake, but the devils food cake is chocolate. When are we going to wake up as a people and end the lie that white is better than black?”

As the 1960s drew to a close, Americans turned against the Vietnam War, elevating Ali’s popularity. And during an era when the government was giving false scores when it came to Vietnam, people knew that Ali was spouting truths, as he saw them. You might not agree with him, but you respected him. “I think Muhammad’s actions contributed enormously to the debate about whether the United States should be in Vietnam and galvanized some of his admirers to join the protests against the war for the first time,” the late Sen. Edward Kennedy told Hauser. “I respect the fact that he never backed down from his beliefs, that he took the consequences of refusing induction, and endured the loss of his title until after his conviction was reversed.” Ali told The Mirror newspaper of Great Britain, during a 2001 interview: “My refusal to go to Vietnam did not just help the black people, it helped more white people. More whites rebelled against Nam. It made me a hero to many white people as well as black people because I had the nerve to challenge the system, and all the people who hate injustice backed me for that.”

With Ali’s stature as a political and social force growing, the time was ripe to reassert his greatness in the ring. Since Georgia had no state boxing bureaucracy, Ali was able to secure his first fight in Atlanta, the deep South, against Jerry Quarry, a white man, on October 26, 1970. In the build up to the fight, Ali himself shied away from the anti-white rhetoric he sometimes employed at the height of his Nation of Islam allegiance. But he knew the fight had social consequences.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was hanging around Ali’s camp in suburban Atlanta the day of the fight, laid them out for author George Plimpton, who was on assignment for Sports Illustrated: “If Cassius loses tonight, [vice president Spiro] Agnew could hold a news conference tomorrow,” Jackson said. “Symbolically, it would suggest that the forces of blind patriotism are right, that dissent is wrong, that protest means you don’t love the country . . . They tried to railroad him. They refused to believe his testimony about his convictions and his religion. They wouldn’t let him practice his profession. They tried to break his spirit and his body. Martin Luther King has a song:‘Truth crushed to the earth will rise again.’ That’s the black ethos. With Cassius Clay all we had was the hope, the psychological longing for his return. And it happened! In Georgia, of all places, and against a white man . . .So there are tremendous social implications. It doesn’t mean Quarry is a villain. But the focus has to be on Clay. He’s a hero, and he carries the same mantle that Joe Louis did against Max Schmeling, or Jesse Owens when he ran in Hitler’s Berlin. Injustice! In Atlanta, I have never sensed such electricity, such expectation in the streets. For the downtrodden, they need the high example – that their representatives, the symbol of their own difficulties, will win. Is that illogical?”

Quarry was gone in the third round. Ali’s fight style changed when he returned to the ring. His hands got soft, so he had to numb them before he got in the ring. Ali developed some fat, but his muscles were broader as well. With the time off, his legs weakened a bit. So he was no longer quick enough to dodge most punches thrown at him. “When he lost his legs, he lost his first line of defense,” Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s long-time fight doctor, said in Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times. “That was when he discovered something which was both very good and very bad. Very bad in that it led to the physical damage he suffered later in his career; very good in that is eventually got him back the championship. He discovered he could take a punch.”

While Ali was suspended, a young heavyweight from Philadelphia, like Ali a former Olympic champion, claimed Ali’s crown: Joe Frazier. Ali wanted a title bout with Smokin’ Joe. A federal court ruled that New York’s denial of a ring license to Ali was “arbitrary and unreasonable,” since Ali’s lawyers gave the court a list of ninety convicted murderers, rapists, sodomites, armed thieves, and other miscreants who had been allowed to fight in the state. So six weeks after the Quarry fight, Ali returned to New York City in December, and survived a punishing fight against Oscar Bonavena, whom he finally beat in the 15th round. The stage was now set: Ali-Frazier, March 8, 1971, New York City, Madison Square Garden, Broadway. Ali was about to embark on the second act of a fight career that, given its captivating effect on the world — from the Americas, to Africa to the furthest reaches of Asia — would somehow exceed the first.

Frazier, Foreman, And Ali As King of The World

For the Frazier bout, hyped as the “Fight of the Century,” Ali’s carnival barking returned. He painted Frazier, unfairly, as a tool of the white establishment, and called him “dumb,” “ugly,” and an “Uncle Tom.” In other words, while the years in boxing banishment brought the best out of Ali, his return to the ring, and the emergence of a younger, harder-hitting champion, brought out the worst.

On fight night, Frank Sinatra took pictures for Life magazine at ringside. Ed Sullivan, Alan Shepard, Bill Cosby, Michael Caine, Hubert Humphrey and Burt Bacharach were among the luminaries in the crowd. Madison Square Garden distributed 750 press credentials, and turned away 500 members of the media who wanted to cover the bout. Frazier, the body puncher, came out swinging for Ali’s head. Ali, the ring dancer, tried matching Frazier hook-for-hook. Ali turned up the showmanship: he invited Frazier to swing at his gut, and when Frazier connected, he’d shake his head, as if a little kid were punching him.”Nooo contest,” Ali crowed at one point.

In the 11th round, however, Frazier pummeled Ali with two left hooks. Ali staggered and barely survived the round. In the 15th and final stanza, Frazier landed one more roundhouse left, sending Ali to the canvas. He got back up, but by that point it was finished: Frazier won the fight on a unanimous decision. “If I was young, I’d have danced for 15 rounds,” Ali said in Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times. “Joe wouldn’t ever have caught me. But the first time we fought I was three-and-a-half years out of shape. He punched hard; he pressured me good. And laying on the ropes to save energy, I lost some rounds I could have won. But it would be wrong to say I gave the fight to Joe. I didn’t give it away. Joe earned it.”

Though he lost to Frazier, a few months later, on June 28, 1971, Ali scored his biggest victory: the Supreme Court, by a vote of 8-0 – Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself – overturned his draft evasion conviction, ruling that the draft board has improperly denied Ali’s claim of exemption on grounds that we was a conscientious objector. Ali won his next ten fights, before Ken Norton broke his jaw and beat him in a split decision in March of 1973. Ali won his rematch against Frazier in January 1974, but that wasn’t a title bout, since George Foreman had beaten Frazier in Jamaica, taking the heavyweight title from him. With his win over Smokin’ Joe, however, Ali would now get his second shot to reclaim the title, against Foreman, in the “Rumble in the Jungle.”

For the Foreman fight, Ali’s camp wanted an unprecedented $5 million payday. A new hotshot promoter, a former numbers runner from Cleveland who had just spent four years in prison for manslaughter – Don King – took charge setting it up. The president of Zaire, Mobutu Sese Seko, was willing to fork over the funds, seeing the global exposure as a long-term investment for his country. The fight was set for September 25, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) at 3 a.m. local time, in order to accommodate American television. (A cut to Foreman’s eye delayed the bout a month, to October 30th – at 4 a.m.)

Ali touched off a minor imbroglio when he told reporters, “All you boys who don’t take me seriously, who think George Foreman is gonna whup me; when you get to Africa, Mobutu’s people are gonna put you in a pot, cook you, and eat you.” The angry Zairian foreign minister put out a chastising call to Ali. Ultimately, however, Ali embraced the African country, excitedly reminding anyone within earshot that blacks could run a nation, and become government leaders, doctors, lawyers. “Watching Ali in Zaire was wonderful,” Ferdie Pacheco told Hauser. “He’d go on walks into areas where I don’t think they had electricity, let alone television sets, and everyone knew him. To see the looks on people’s faces when they saw him, the love, the power he had over them, it was spine-tingling.”

Back then, Foreman wasn’t a smiling, teddy-bearish grill salesman. Rather, he was an ornery, attacking heavyweight champ in the mold of Sonny Liston. “George Foreman is nothing but a big mummy,” Ali said. “I’ve officially named him ‘the Mummy.’ He moves like a slow mummy, and there ain’t no mummy gonna whup the great Muhammad Ali. See, you all believe that stuff you see in the movies. Here’s a guy running through the jungle, doing the hundred-yard dash, and the mummy is chasing him. Thomp, thomp, thomp. ‘Ohh, help! I can’t get away from the mummy. Help, help! The mummy’s catching me. Help! Here comes the mummy!’” And the mummy always catches him. Well, don’t you all believe that stuff there ain’t no mummy gonna catch me . . . I got a punch for George. It’s called the ghetto-whopper, and the reason it’s called the ghetto-whopper is because it’s thrown in the ghetto at three o’clock in the morning, which is when me and George gonna fight . . . You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whup George Foreman’s behind.”

The fight was staged in a soccer stadium, under an African moon. In the first round, both men came out throwing haymakers. Joe Frazier, doing ringside commentary for the television broadcast, called the first round even. When he went back his corner, however, Ali felt tired. The plan was to dance all night, and make Foreman chase him. Ali ditched the script, however, and hung against the ropes in the second round, absorbing punishment from Foreman. Ali figured he’d save more energy getting hit than running around the ring, and that Foreman would tire out while attacking him. His corner was apoplectic. George Plimpton turned to Norman Mailer and wondered if a fix was in. “When he went to the ropes,” Dundee said, “I felt sick.”

It was the most brilliant tactical move of Ali’s career. By seventh round, Foreman was lumbering, in slow motion. “I got a feeling that George is not gonna make it,” said Frazier on television before the eighth round. He didn’t. Right before the bell, Ali caught him with a left-right combination, and Foreman stumbled to the floor. He got up, but couldn’t go on: the ref stopped the fight. Muhammad Ali, over a decade after he first grabbed the heavyweight crown form Sonny Liston, seven years after his objection to Vietnam service cost him the championship, had regained the title. “Muhammad Ali has done it!” David Frost yelled on the broadcast, as Ali’s supporters spilled into the ring. “The great man has done it! This is the most joyous scene in the history of boxing!” After the broadcast showed replay of Ali’s closing blows, Frost harked back to the second Liston fight, barking: “That was not a phantom punch! That was not a phantom punch!” Three hours after a victory that bolstered his status as the most celebrated athlete, if not the most famous person, on the planet, a beaming Ali was spotted on a Zaire stoop, showing magic tricks to African children.

Ali was, indeed, king of the world. In December he visited Gerald Ford in the White House; such a meeting would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier. He remained loyal to the Nation of Islam, but Elijah Muhammad’s death in February of 1975 moved the Muslim group in a more moderate direction. In October of 1975, Frazier got his rubber match with Ali, in Manila. “It will be a killer/and a chiller/and a thrilla/When I get the gorilla/In Manila.”

In the 100-degree heat, before an estimated 700 million closed-circuit television viewers in some 65 countries, Ali and Frazier fought their most famous brawl. Frazier refused to wear down, but by the 14th round, Ali was pounding him at will. Both men were slogging. Before the final round, with Frazier’s eyes swollen shut, Frazier trainer Eddie Futch stopped the fight. “No one will ever forget what you did here today,” Futch told Frazier. After it was over, Ali just slumped in his chair. Ali later said that he and Frazier went to Manila as fighters, and returned as old men. “The ship stop here,” Ali said afterwards, while looking over Manila Bay. “My God, what that man did to me. No more oceans. Nothin’ in boxin’ for me no more.”

The Long Goodbye

Many supporters of Ali, who was almost 34 in the time of the third Frazier fight, wished he stopped boxing after the Philippines. They are convinced that his late career fights were responsible for the brain damage he suffered later in life – or at least sped up its effects. “Athletes get old early,” said Pacheco in Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. “John McEnroe today [in 1991] is like an over-the-hill fighter. Once, he was the greatest player in the world. Now he loses in the second round at Wimbledon. But there’s a major difference between boxing and tennis, because when McEnroe takes a beating, it’s not in the form of concussive blows to the brain.”

Ali won six more bouts – including one last stand against Ken Norton in Yankee Stadium – over the next two years before losing his title to Leon Spinks, in Las Vegas, in February 1978. “Ali was beaten by his own shadow,” promoter Bob Arum said afterwards. Seven months later, Ali became the first heavyweight to take the world title for a third time, when he won a decision against Spinks in the rematch. In June of 1979, he announced his retirement from boxing.

But Ali got antsy. He tried to open a fast-food hamburger joint, and become an actor: those efforts failed. His entourage and shady investment advisors leeched plenty of money off him, but Ali was still a millionaire. President Jimmy Carter, who at one point considered asking Ali to mediate the Iran hostage crisis, sent Ali on a diplomatic mission to Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, and Senegal in order to enlist support for the American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, in Moscow. But after African officials and media wondered why they should boycott the Moscow Games, while the U.S. had refused to join the 29 African nations who skipped the 1976 Montreal Olympics because of apartheid-era South Africa’s participation, Ali became disillusioned. The trip was disaster, and Ali soon announced his intent to return to the ring.

Ali’s own mother voiced her objections. But a fight was put together: Ali against the new heavyweight champ, Larry Holmes, in Las Vegas in October of 1980. A pre-fight evaluation from the Mayo Clinic, which was sent to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, ultimately cleared Ali to fight. But it did raise some warning signals about Ali’s health. For example, the report said Ali had “mild ataxic dysarthria,” meaning difficulty coordinating the muscles involved in speech. Ali did not hop “with the agility that one might anticipate” and missed the target on a finger to nose test, though the doctor chalked that up to possible fatigue.

Still, you just needed to hear the slowing speech of Ali, almost 39, to know something was off. Putting him in the ring with a hitter like Holmes carried grave risks. By the ninth round, Ali was motionless, and Holmes started to take it easy on him. “It is sad to see this,” said Howard Cosell, doing the blow-by-blow. “This must be stopped . . . His hands are no longer busy, his feet no longer swift.” Holmes cried after the fight, after beating his idol. “The affront to his dignity and his ring aesthetics,” long-time Ali-chronicler Mark Kram wrote in Playboy, in 1984, “was enough to make you put your hands over your eyes.”Incredibly, Ali fought one more time, against Trevor Berbick in 1981. He lost the decision.

Ali retreated to his Los Angeles mansion, where he lived with his third wife, Veronica (Ali married his second wife, Belinda, a devout Muslim, in 1967. She and Ali split soon after she nearly wrecked the hotel suite where he and Veronica were staying in Manila: Belinda discovered Ali was introducing Veronica as his wife). In 1984, Ali was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome – later, it was changed to Parkinson’s disease. Despite the ailment, Ai reinvented himself yet again, spending the last three decades of his life as a spiritual force. He sponsored a series of lectures about Islam, and became one of America’s great humanitarians. Ali could still delight, and even move, an audience with his mock-shadowboxing, or magic tricks. The elder Ali was child-like, and had a soft-spot for young people. For example in 1992, while visiting a former opponent, he spontaneously boarded a bus filled with disabled kids, and started to sign autographs.

He has delivered food and medical supplies to children in Indonesia, Morocco, and to an orphanage for Liberian refugees in the Ivory Coast. Three billion people watched him light the Olympic torch in Atlanta, in 1996: Ali steadying his trembling hand to light the flame remains the most iconic image of those Olympics. President Bill Clinton confided to Ali that he cried: Clinton was far from alone.

In 1990, Ali met with Saddam Hussein and helped secure the release of 14 American hostages from Iraq. He has traveled to Afghanistan as a United States messenger of Peace. Jimmy Carter called him “Mr. International Friendship.” After September 11, Ali publicly defended Islam, reminding Americans that terrorists don’t represent the millions who practice the religion. “I think the people should know the real truth about Islam,” Ali, his body shaking from Parkinson’s, said during America: A Tribute to Heroes, the benefit concert broadcast on all four networks on September 21, 2001. He showed that his words still had power. “You know me, I’m a boxer, I’m called the greatest of all time. People recognize me for being a boxer, a man of truth. And I wouldn’t be here representing Islam if it was really like the terrorists made it look . . . Islam is peace, against killing, murder, and the terrorists, and the people doing it in the name of Islam, are wrong.”

Ali married his fourth wife, Lonnie, in 1986. (Ali had nine children with his four wives, including daughter Laila, who became a championship boxer of her own). Lonnie managed Ali’s business affairs, and helped lead the effort to open the Muhammad Ali Center, a museum in downtown Louisville, in 2005. George W. Bush awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom that same year. 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.”

The Greatest, even.

For much more on Muhammad Ali, see TIME’s ALI: The Greatest, a 112-page, fully illustrated commemorative edition. Available at retailers and at AMAZON.COM

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com