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Muhammad Ali

In or out of the ring, myriad reasons to celebrate the life of boxing great Muhammad Ali

He was arguably the greatest sportsman of the 20th century, yet he was also a diplomat, poet, philanthropist, civil rights activist and peace advocate

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 June, 2016, 11:37pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2016, 12:03pm

Muhammad Ali made his name as a black heavyweight boxing champion, but he is being mourned for being more than a sporting great. The courage and tenacity he showed in the ring extended into issues of race, religion, politics and charity, to the point that he became the world’s most recognisable person. Even in diplomacy he had a role; among his trips, he visited China twice to build ties with the US, on one occasion in 1979 meeting paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平). In all he attempted, with all he attained, he had a significant impact.

Ali’s bravery and personality were his defining marks. His boasting of his boxing greatness, coupled with rhyming taunts to opponents, assured media attention. Although a poor student at school and from a poverty-ridden and racially segregated background, his fame gave a platform from which to fight causes.

 

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Born with the slave name Cassius Clay, he rose to prominence at a crucial time in American history, with the civil rights movement and Vietnam war gathering pace. As a cocky 18-year-old in Rome in 1960, he won an Olympic gold medal. Two days after he took the world heavyweight crown in 1964, he became a Muslim and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, sparking controversy. Religion was his reason for refusing to be drafted into the US army in 1967 and he was stripped of his boxing licence and title and lost three of his prime fighting years in the legal battle to stay out of jail.

 

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Ali took to campaigning for peace and equality and as sentiments shifted, won new fame as the face and voice of the anti-war movement. His sentence was overturned and he regained his title, lost it and won it back for an unprecedented third time before being again defeated. When he eventually retired, his slurred speech showed the onset of Parkinson’s disease, complications from which he died last Friday at the age of 74. There are iconic images of his boxing triumphs, but perhaps the most memorable is the poignant one from Atlanta in 1996, his arm trembling as he holds the torch to light the Olympic flame.

He had flaws as well as strengths; they made him human. Equally, he was generous with his time and money; after boxing, he devoted himself to myriad causes, among them peacekeeping trips, fund-raising for Parkinson’s research and support for the Special Olympics and Unicef. He was a fighter even when his strength was sapped, reason enough to celebrate his extraordinary life.