Muhammad Ali always had the gift of the gab. He could talk up a whirlwind and he could do it without breaking a sweat. His talent to produce the perfect repartee made him a press favourite even before he became the best boxer on the planet. It got him the attention... and Ali made the most of it. He backed up his fame with deeds.
As he once said: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”
His oratory outside the ring helped establish his legend and he somehow always knew how to choose the right moment. He could trash-talk his opponents, or stand up for black rights, or speak out against the Vietnam War. He could do it all and do it with a conviction; a belief that indeed stood out as special.
For example, here is a poem from 1962:
Everyone knew when I stepped in town,
I was the greatest fighter around.
A lot of people called me a clown,
But I am the one who called the round.
The people came to see a great fight,
But all I did was put out the light.
Never put your money against Cassius Clay,
For you will never have a lucky day.
After the fight against Sonny Liston, which resulted in a stunning upset victory for Ali, he shouted from the ring, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest!” and told the press, “Eat your words! I shook up the world! I’m king of the world!”
There was confidence but there was almost an unbeatable aura in the ring. Quick hands, quicker feet and a heart that never knew when to give up – he had them all. Before his legendary “Rumble in the Jungle” championship victory over George Foreman in 1974 he said this:
But even in the early days, Ali was never one to take injustice lying down.
On his return from the 1960 Rome Olympics, he is said to have thrown his gold medal into the Ohio River. Reason? He and a friend were refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant.
Ali later spoke about the incident. When he ordered a cheeseburger a waitress told him, “We don’t serve negroes.” And Ali replied, “I don’t eat them either. Just bring me a cheeseburger.”
Through a mix of humour, anger and great timing, he would often make sure his voice was heard.
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In 1964, the 22-year-old “king of the world” converted to Islam, gave up his “slave name” Cassius Clay and changed it to Muhammad Ali.
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further angered the establishment; he refused to be conscripted into the American military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles – all this at a time when he was at his peak and capable of earning millions of dollars. It was a great sacrifice but he stood by his principles and remained unbowed:
I am America.
I am the part you won’t recognize.
But get used to me:
Black, confident, cocky.
My name, not yours.
My religion, not yours.
My goals, my own.
Get used to me.
Ali would not fight for four years, while appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which finally overturned his conviction in 1971. During the period, he was almost broke, but he gained stature.
Ali said, “They made me bigger by taking my title,” and it was no wonder that he became a voice of the American civil rights and anti-war movements.
Here is a collection of Ali’s comments on that shift, as well as his stance on Vietnam:
The poem you can watch Ali narrate below was written about the 1971 Attica prison riot.
*The Attica riots started on September 9, 1971. Over the next four days, up to 2,200 prisoners rebelled, taking 42 of the prison staff hostage. Nelson Rockefeller, the New York governor at the time, asked state police to retake the prison by use of force. In the ensuing riot, 43 died including 33 prisoners and 10 prison guards. It is reported to be the bloodiest prison riot in US history.
Ali, in this interview with RTE, recited a poem regarding that incident:
Ali often said what was on his mind, he said it without fear and in doing that, he inspired others to do the same.
Whether it was in the ring or outside it, Ali was never one to pull his punches and perhaps the impact of what he did is best described by these words from Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe.
“I believe that, if Ali hadn’t done what he did, Harry Edwards wouldn’t have gotten a fraction of the support he got in 1968 to boycott the Mexico City Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos wouldn’t have raised their fists. Ali had to be on their minds. He was largely responsible for it becoming an expected part of the black athlete’s responsibility to get involved. He had more at stake than any of us. He put it all on the line for what he believed in. And if Ali did that, who were the rest of us lesser athlete mortals not to do it? I know he certainly influenced me later in 1967 when the Davis Cup draw came up and lo and behold, the United States was supposed to meet in South Africa in the third round. (...) There’s no question that Ali’s sacrifice was in the forefront of my mind.(...) And I can tell you, the 1960s would have been very different for black Americans without him.”— via 'Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times' by Thomas Hauser
Quite simply, Muhammad Ali was The Greatest.
Clarification: The Attica Prison Riot description has been updated. The article originally said it started because of the attempted escape of a black man.)