He called himself “The Greatest,” and there were few people inside or outside of sports who would disagree. Muhammad Ali, who defeated every major heavyweight boxer in his 21-year career, and whose wit, braggadocio and principled opinions forever changed the way sports figures were covered in America, died June 3, 2016. He was 74.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky., Ali transcended sports. He was a pop culture icon and a man of his time, known as much for his controversial actions outside the boxing ring than inside. He brought the raw issues of race, politics and religious freedom to the forefront and refused to let public expectations define him or compromise his values.
“Even as Ali battled Parkinson’s disease, he filled a room, no matter the size, with his presence,” said Gene Policinski, Newseum Institute chief operating officer, who was managing editor of sports in the 1990s at USA TODAY. “He earned boxing titles with his fists but won the world’s admiration with his smile, his wit and his sense of purpose.”
Ali spoke freely and unapologetically about the issues he cared about. At a press conference the day after his stunning upset in February 1964 of heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, a reporter asked him if he was a “card-carrying member of the Black Muslims.” Ali said he didn’t know what “card-carrying” meant, but acknowledged his membership in the Nation of Islam, also known as the “Black Muslims.”
“I believe in Allah and in peace,” Ali said. “I’m not a Christian anymore. I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.”
A month later, he officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali, claiming Cassius Clay was a “slave name.” Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, gave him the Muslim name that means “Praiseworthy One.” Ali became a Sunni Muslim in 1975.
Not many journalists accepted Ali’s new name. The late Howard Cosell, a lawyer-turned-sportscaster who was as blustery and opinionated as Ali, not only accepted the name but staunchly defended Ali’s decision. From then on, until the end of his life in 1995, Cosell and Ali were intricately linked.
In 1967, sports, politics and religion intersected when Ali refused to be drafted in the U.S. Army and sought conscientious objector status.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he said. “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.”
Ali’s refusal to enlist, and his vocal opposition of the war, outraged politicians, fans and journalists. Many of them called him a traitor, but Ali held his ground.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” he told Sports Illustrated. “If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me — I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs.”
As a consequence of his steadfast refusal, Ali was arrested and convicted of draft evasion. During his appeal, he was stripped of his passport and boxing title and was exiled from the sport. The ban lasted for three-and-a-half years until the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously overthrew the conviction. When public support of the war eroded, Ali became an inspiration instead of a pariah. He retired from the ring in 1981. In 1999, Sports Illustrated named him “Sportsman of the Century.” The British Broadcasting Corporation named him “Sports Personality of the Century.”
Ali’s legacy was best summed up in 2013 by New York Times sports columnist William Rhoden.
“Ali’s actions changed my standard of what constituted an athlete’s greatness. Possessing a killer jump shot or the ability to stop on a dime was no longer enough. What were you doing for the liberation of your people? What were you doing to help your country live up to the covenant of its founding principles?” he wrote.
Ali’s role in sports history is featured in the 25-minute Newseum-produced video “Press Box: The History of Sports Reporting,” shown daily in the Sports Theater.