Muhammad Ali, the larger-than-life champion
Remembering a man defined by his principles, respect, and desire to be the best he could possibly be.

Muhammad Ali was a world-class boxer and an important figure in the Black and Muslim communities. Ali was born Cassius Clay Jr. in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He became interested in boxing at an early age and vowed to make a name for himself, saying, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’” Ali accomplished this when he won the Olympic Gold medal in 1960 and defeated the great Sonny Liston in 1964, becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. Liston had won 35 of 36 professional fights, so this was viewed as a major upset in the world of boxing. Ali was known for being smart, fast, and strategic. He famously said he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” as his punches were so fast that the first one would only be felt after the second one already hit you. 

Ali had been named “Cassius” after his father, who in turn had been assigned the name by slave owners. Around 1960, Ali joined The Nation of Islam and changed his name because he associated it with the slave trade and white supremacy. Additionally, changing names that were related to slavery was required to join the Nation. The most popular system was to simply change your last name to X, as shown by Ali’s former mentor and civil rights activist Malcolm X. Ali initially named his name to Cassius X, but decided to go a step further by donning the first name of the prophet and founder of Islam.  

In addition to his boxing, Ali was considered a great American figure because of his pre-civil rights activism. In 1967, when Ali was in the prime of his career, he refused to be drafted for the Vietnam War, which he was called for despite being a champion athlete. Ali explained his refusal, stating, “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.” Ali was heavily criticized for this and stripped of his heavyweight championship. He was also sentenced to five years in prison, which derailed his boxing career. Nonetheless, Ali maintained his stance, claiming he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese people. This sparked critical thought and dialogue around the draft and American politics. The Vietnamese people heard this statement as well, and many refused to fight black American soldiers during the war.

Ali believed that “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” He also followed in Malcolm X’s footsteps when he left the Nation of Islam, a black separatist group, and instead adopted Islam as a religion, which accepts people and focuses on peace. Furthermore, when Ali joined The Hollywood Walk of Fame, he objected to his name being placed on the walkway because walking on the name of the Prophet is considered disrespectful in Islam.

Ali was also an avid supporter of Palestine and one of the first notable Americans to be so during the Zionist settler colonial project. He notably went to a Palestinian refugee camp and proclaimed, “I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland.” Like his stance on the Vietnam War, Ali’s actions demonstrated his ability to stand up for what he believed was right regardless of potential pushback. 

Sadly, Muhammad Ali passed away on June 3, 2016. He had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease since his forties. He ultimately died as a result of septic shock alongside his family, but his legacy lives on. Ali remains a legendary figure in boxing and the Black and Muslim communities. He is remembered as a man who valued his principles, including his religion, racial heritage, respect for other people, and his commitment to being great. 

Staff Writer (Volume 49 & 50) — Yusuf is in his fourth year completing a double major in English and Cinema Studies and a minor in History of Religions. He first joined The Medium in 2022 when he sought to get involved in the on-campus community. He has developed strong writing skills throughout the experience and enjoys learning about new topics he wouldn’t know about otherwise. You can connect with Yusuf on LinkedIn.


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