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The boxing legend Muhammad Ali has passed away at the age of 74. He leaves behind a legacy that makes him the greatest sports icon of the 20th Century.
Ali, born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in January 1942, started boxing at the tender age of 12 when his bicycle was stolen and he vowed to get revenge on the thief.
A police officer who found Clay angry about the theft told him he better learn to box if wanted to get back at the thief, and so he started on a path that would lead him to the heavyweight championship of the world and the title of the greatest sportsman of the 20th Century.
Fighting under his birth name, Clay rose through the amateur ranks and earned a place in the US boxing team at the 1960 Olympics in Rome when he was just 18 where he won gold as a light heavyweight. He then turned professional.
From the start of his professional career, Clay would use his words as well as his fists to beat up opponents and entertain an audience. He had a talent for rhyme and reporters would sit rapt as he waxed lyrical about his own talents and the weaknesses of his opponents.
In the build up to his first title fight against the fearsome Sonny Liston in 1964, he called the world champion a “big ugly bear” and said “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo!” And he wasn’t all talk. Clay defeated Liston and became the youngest fighter to win the heavyweight championship of the world at just 22.
Soon after the Liston fight, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali following his conversion to Islam. His reputation only grew after that as he successfully defended his title against the best fighters, which included a rematch with Liston. That was until March 1967.
Ali was called up to fight in Vietnam but he refused to go and said that his religion forbade him from fighting in the war. Ali was arrested and his boxing license and titles were stripped from him. He was put on trial for his refusal to fight and faced jail for his beliefs.
This act helped to propel Ali from a famous athlete to a cultural icon. His stance and conviction inspired others, especially other black people fighting for civil rights at the time. He even inspired the great Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the war.
In 1970 Ali was allowed to box again, but many said he had lost the speed that had made him great. He soon challenged the formidable Joe Fraizer for the championship in the so called “Fight of the Century” in 1971, and Ali’s trash talking went to new levels. But this time he could not back up his words - Ali lost the fight.
Over the next 3 years he rebuilt his career and reputation, reclaimed the heavyweight title and set up a a re-match with Fraizer in 1974. At the peak of his success, Ali's next fight would go down as the most famous in boxing history - ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’.
He faced the heavy-hitting George Foreman in a title fight in October 1974 in Zaire. Ali created a media circus in the build up to the fight, getting the local people on his side and delivering some of his greatest quotes.
In spite of Ali’s confidence many thought Foreman would be too strong for Ali, and as the fight went on, it seemed this was true. Ali retreated to the ropes, his hands up, absorbing the huge punches the Foreman pummelled him with. It seemed to be no contest, but it was actually part of Ali’s ‘Rope a Dope’ plan. Foreman tired himself out punching Ali and in the 8th round the champ came off the ropes and knocked Foreman out.
"Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”
Ali continued to defend his title through the 70s, but there was one more fight that almost eclipsed the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ - the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’ in 1975. This was Ali’s third fight against Joe Fraizer and took place in the Philippines. The two men slugged it out for 14 rounds in 40 degree heat until Fraizer threw in the towel. Ali said it was the closest to death he ever came.
Ali fought for for 6 more years before finally hanging up his gloves in 1981. Many thought he went on too long and that the final fights contributed heavily to the Parkinson’s disease that he was diagnosed with in 1984.
In retirement he remained a sporting and cultural icon, receiving recognition from presidents and the UN for his achievements, and famously lighting the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta games.
As a boxer he is rated as one of the greatest of all-time, but his legacy and achievements transcend sport. He stood up as a proud black man during the fight for civil rights in 1960, he was willing to lose everything, including his freedom, in his opposition to the Vietnam war, and he was a supreme entertainer in the 1960s and 70s when pop-culture was revolutionised.
He called himself “The Greatest”. He was the greatest.
Muhammad Ali - 1942 to 2016.