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11 Things You Need To Know About Muhammad Ali

On Friday, boxing legend Muhammad Ali died at the Honor Health Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona, leaving behind nine children and an unparalleled athletic legacy. Ali had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for years, impairing his cognitive and physical abilities. Over the last two years, he was admitted for various ailments including a urinary tract infection and pneumonia. This time around, he wasn’t able to bounce back from the brink of death. After being admitted to the hospital on Monday, Ali ultimately died of septic shock. He was 74 years old.

Both inside and outside the ring, the boxing legend courted controversy. Even his opponents could agree: He was as animated as he was athletically gifted. Ali’s fighting ability was only paralleled by his warring words against his self-identified enemies.

Polarizing and pugilistic, Ali will surely be immortalized as an unforgettable figure in American sports history, and perhaps beyond.

Here are 11 things you need to know about Muhammad Ali.

1. He was a boxing champion who remains unmatched to this day. Ali’s record in the ring is impressive to say the least. The man had 56 wins, 5 losses, and 37 knockouts. For a full list of his fights, click here.

2. He was born Cassius Clay and then converted to Islam later on in life. Ali converted to Islam in 1964 when he was 22 years old. The decision occurred on the heels of his defeat against Sonny Liston. At the time, Ali claimed that he had come to see his birth name as a marker of oppression, labeling “Clay” his “slave name.” Ali claimed that he converted to Islam to oppose white domination.

3. He was named after a white abolitionist. “The fighter, like his father, was named for Cassius Marcellus Clay, a 19th century farmer and anti-slavery crusader who emancipated the 40 slaves he inherited from his father,” explains History. “The abolitionist, a second cousin of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, edited an anti-slavery newspaper, commanded troops in the Mexican-American War and served as minister to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln.” For his abolitionist efforts, Clay was beaten and shot but still managed to survive until he was 92 years old, even after receiving countless death threats.

4. He joined the Nation of Islam, a radical black Islamic supremacist group mostly active in the 1960s. Ali attended his first NOI meeting in 1961. By 1962, he saw Malcolm X as a mentor and inspiration. Malcolm X was joined by Ali as an unofficial member of his entourage. Elijah Muhammad, the leader of NOI at the time, was instrumental in choosing Ali’s new name and providing an Islamic curriculum for the boxer to get closer to the faith. NOI has been accused of being a “hate group” since its inception in the early 1930s. The group has also allegedly engaged in violence against law enforcement. Ali was largely criticized by the press and the public for his affiliations with the controversial Islamic group. While Ali held onto his Islamic faith throughout his life, he eventually pulled away from NOI, directing his attention towards Parkinson’s research advocacy groups.

5. He dodged the draft. Punches weren’t the only thing Ali was good at dodging. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused be inducted into the US Army after being called to serve his country to fight in Vietnam. He cited religious reasons to justify his refusal to join. As a result, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to jail. In June of that year, the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

Ali’s public draft-dodging had a strong impact on youth culture at the time. Robert Lipsyte of The New York Times explains:

And a whole generation of young, white American boys—and the girls and mothers who loved them—really loved him because he took away the stigma of not wanting to serve your country, of being a “draft dodger.”

Ali’s anti-military stance only added fuel to the 1960s counterculture revolution.

6. He was vocal critic of the Vietnam War. In addition to dodging the draft, Ali openly voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali famously said. Despite gaining fans in some far-Left circles, mainstream American public sentiment quickly turned against Ali.

“He’s hurting, I think, the morale of a lot of young Negro soldiers over in Vietnam,” stated acclaimed black baseball star Jackie Robinson. “And the tragedy to me is, Cassius has made millions of dollars off of the American public, and now he’s not willing to show his appreciation to a country that’s giving him, in my view, a fantastic opportunity.”

Weathering the backlash, Ali refused to back down. “The government had a system where the rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war,” Ali declared.

7. He became a global symbol of resistance against the West, especially in the Muslim world. Although anti-Western sentiments weren’t particularly strong in the United States, especially during the height of the Cold War, Ali made a name for himself as a heroic cultural and political icon throughout the Muslim world, and beyond. As the world’s most widely recognized Muslim, many young Muslims, especially in the era right before the rise of political Islam, identified with Ali and his struggle against what he deemed to be “Western imperialism.”

Bloomberg View’s Noah Feldmen elaborates further:

…Ali’s symbolic role transformed Islam into a potential tool of anti-imperial, anticolonial, anti-Western activism.

To be sure, Ali’s own professed pacifism was a very far cry from the militant Islam that would eventually emerge in the 1980s. That militancy grew from the melange of the Palestinian liberation movement, the Iranian revolution, the American-funded Afghan jihad and a range of other factors too numerous to be recounted here. But all these different streams of militancy had in common an identification of Islam with the Third World liberation.

Muhammad Ali made himself a living symbol of that resistance.

8. He was kicked out of boxing for three years. When Ali dodged the draft, he was stripped of his boxing titles and banned from boxing for three years. While the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in the criminal trial, Ali lost several good years in the boxing ring due to his resistance to military conscription. At the time, he was near his athletic peak, although he still excelled immensely after being reinstated.

9. He won an Olympic gold medal but (allegedly) threw it in the Ohio River. In 1960, then 18-year-old Ali won the light heavyweight gold medal at the Summer Olympics in Rome. He later threw the medal into the Ohio River as he stood over a bridge in Louisville, Kentucky, according to his 1975 autobiography. Some doubt Ali’s version of the events, claiming that he simply lost the medal. Several decades later, he was given a replacement gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta where he lit the cauldron for the Opening Ceremonies.

10. He pleaded for Daniel Pearl’s Iife. This is perhaps the least widely known fact about Ali. In January of 2012, Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl was abducted by Islamic extremists, primarily because he was Jewish. When Pearl’s father, Judea, begged for help, Ali was one of the most prominent Muslim public figures to heed the father’s cries. The heavyweight boxing champion attempted to leverage his popularity in the Muslim world to secure the release Pearl’s release.

“I appeal to you to show Daniel Pearl compassion and kindness,” asked Ali. “Treat him as you would wish all Muslims to be treated by others. Daniel should not become another victim of the ongoing conflict. It is my most sincere prayer that Daniel Pearl be permitted to return safely to his family. May Allah have mercy on us all.”

While Pearl was ultimately beheaded by his captors, the Pearl family felt forever thankful for Ali’s assistance, especially when others refused to help. “Ali did not hesitate a minute and issued a plea that only Satan could resist; it was published next day in Pakistan,” stated Pearl’s father. “Ali further called me by phone and insisted on being invited to the party once Danny was released.”

11. He was his own man. As John Nolte wrote for The Daily Wire:

Muhammad Ali could be cruel (his treatment of Joe Frazier was unforgivable), vain, petty, a bully, and dead wrong. But he was “The Greatest,” not because of his misguided beliefs but because of his courageous willingness to time and again risk everything to stand up for those beliefs.

Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali, the Louisville Lip, the Champ, the Greatest…. There will never be another like him.

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