Muhammad Ali Redefined What It Means To Be An Athlete And An Activist

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[The passing of a hero. See also: ‘I Just Wanted to Be Free’: The Radical Reverberations of Muhammad Ali. *RON*]

By Lindsay Gibbs, Think Progress, 4 June 2016

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, shouting and gesturing shortly after dropping Liston with a short hard right to the jaw on May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine. The bout lasted only one minute into the first round. CREDIT: JOHN ROONEY, AP
There are a couple nagging questions all successful, high-profile athletes inevitably have to grapple with: What does it mean to have a voice? What does it mean to truly be great?

Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer who died on Friday at the age of 74, didn’t just redefine both of those concepts; he absolutely shattered them.

Whether it was refusing to be drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam 1967, literally talking a suicidal stranger off a ledge in 1981, or speaking out against the Islamophobia of presidential candidates in 2015, Ali’s greatness extended far beyond the ropes of the boxing ring, and his voice was more impactful than his fists.

“What Muhammad Ali did—in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing black skin—was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage,” Dave Zirin wrote at The Nation. “Through the Champ’s words on the streets and deeds in the ring, bravery was not only standing up to Sonny Liston. It was speaking truth to power, no matter the cost.”
Over the years, Ali taught me that sports, politics, and society are inseparable. One simply magnifies the others. #RIPMuhammadAli — Karim Zidan (@ZidanSports) June 4, 2016
Ali was brash, bold, and unapologetically confident in his own greatness. Coming of age in the midst of the heart of the civil rights movement, with racial tensions at a breaking point, Ali refused to make himself smaller or meeker just to make others more comfortable.

In 1960, Ali (then Cassius Clay) won a gold medal in light heavyweight boxing at the Rome Olympics at the age of 18. He was so proud that he wore the medal all the time upon his return to the United States — up until the moment he was refused service at a small dinner party because he was black. That night, he threw his medal into the Ohio River.

In 1967, he refused to be drafted to go fight in Vietnam, citing the fact that he had converted to Islam in 1964. He was arrested, and the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license while the World Boxing Association stripped him of the heavyweight title.
Ali was willing to go to prison to avoid killing people. That’s a fucking hero. — Barry Petchesky (@barryap1) June 4, 2016
Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, but his case was appealed and went all the way to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned in 1971. In the end, he was banned from boxing for three years during what could have been the prime of his career.

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” he said at the time. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”

He was not impressed with other athletes who weren’t willing to speak up on matters of politics or religion out of fear of losing sponsor or fans. Back in 1971, Ali brutally shattered the notion that “not all white people” are racist.

“So now I’m going to forget the 400 years of lynching and killing and raping and depriving my people of freedom and justice and equality, the first fired, the last hired, the lowest of low, last respected, and I’m going to look at the two or three white people who are trying to do right and forget the million who are trying to kill me? I’m not that big of a fool,” he said on the British talk show Parkinson.
"Inside of a ring or out, ain't nothing wrong with going down. It's staying down that's wrong." #MuhammadAli — Muhammad Ali (@MuhammadAli) January 11, 2016
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, a disease which is commonly associated with the head trauma that boxers experience on a regular basis. But even with his motor skills slowed and his speech shaky, he never stopped fighting for what he believed was right.

As recently as last December, when the now-presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States after a string of ISIS terrorist attacks, Ali released a statement defending his religion.

“I am a Muslim and there is nothing Islamic about killing innocent people in Paris, San Bernardino, or anywhere else in the world,” he said. “True Muslims know that the ruthless violence of so called Islamic Jihadists goes against the very tenets of our religion.”

“Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is."

These days, there are endless battles over the greatness of athletes, but Ali is the one that everyone universally agrees takes the title. His name has become synonymous with the conceit. But as brilliant as it was to watch him fight like a butterfly and sting like a bee, his most significant legacy has nothing to with boxing gloves.

He wasn't perfect, but he always remained an activist first, an athlete second. He proved that not only were the two things not mutually exclusive, but they are stronger together than they ever could be apart. Because of his ability to be both, the champ will be remembered exactly the way he hoped he would.
Read what Muhammad Ali wrote in his memoir on the page titled "HOW I WOULD like to be REMEMBERED" — Chris Donovan (@chrisdonovan) June 4, 2016