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An American icon

Muhammad Ali led an amazing life inside and outside the boxing ring

Ali prays in the mosque at his former training camp in Deer Lake, Pa., in 1991. Associated Press/Photo by Richard Drew

An American icon
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Since “Muhammad Ali” is one of Islam’s favorite names, Muslims around the world usually referred to the great boxer who died on June 3 as Muhammad Ali Clay—ironically calling him by the “slave” name he dropped the day after he became world heavyweight champion.

“Muslims wanted a hero to represent them, and Clay was the only Muslim champion,” said Jordanian law professor Mohammed Omari. Jordan’s King Abdullah II wrote on his Twitter account, “The world has lost today a great unifying champion whose punches transcended borders and nations.”

Ali, quick with his wit and light on his feet, controversial and beloved, died at the age of 74 after a 35-year boxing match with Parkinson’s disease. He had grown up in a time of racism, and that contributed to his estrangement from the Baptist beliefs he heard as a child in Louisville, Ky.

During his early boxing trips, Ali had to stay in the car with his teammates while trainer Joe Martin bought them hamburgers. When he came back to Louisville in 1960 as Olympic light heavyweight champion, Chamber of Commerce leaders issued a citation but said they were too busy to host a dinner.

Ali later said he threw his gold medal in the river after a fight with a white motorcycle gang, when he and a friend were kicked out of a whites-only restaurant. But businessmen in town recognized his potential as a professional, and he signed a contract with Louisville millionaires who sent him to a top trainer in Miami.

Ali became world champion by hammering the face of heavily favored Sonny Liston in 1964. Three years later Ali received his draft notice for the U.S. Army, but refused to join and requested conscientious objector status. Boxing officials suspended Ali from competition and stripped him of his title. Ali faced a possible prison term, but his case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in 1971.

Over the years, people who knew Ali described him as a compassionate man of principle. He seemed to like everyone he met, other than a few boxing adversaries. He once drove hours to visit a terminally ill child. Another time he spent half an hour sitting in the ninth-floor window of a Los Angeles building talking with a man who threatened suicide. Then Ali walked out of the building, an arm over the saved man’s shoulders.

Critics thought Ali’s three-year layoff from boxing would kill his career, but some of Ali’s most memorable fights, including three with Joe Frazier, came in the 1970s. One match against George Foreman, in 1974 in Zaire, became known as The Rumble in the Jungle. “Ali, booma-ya,” the 60,000 fans chanted, “Ali, kill him.” For seven rounds, Ali leaned against the ropes while Foreman pounded him. Then, in the eighth round, he exploded on an exhausted Foreman, knocking him out in a flurry of punches.

The beatings he had taken caught up with Ali in 1981. He retired from boxing and began traveling the world in what he called a missionary role. He met world leaders and thousands of others in huge receptions. He went on diplomatic trips to Africa and Iraq, and in 1996 he lit the Olympic torch. President George W. Bush in 2005 awarded Ali the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Jae Wasson

Jae is a contributor to WORLD and WORLD’s first Pulliam fellow. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College. Jae resides in Corvallis, Ore.


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