This weekend my Facebook page, along with the pages of anyone with access to social media, exploded in tributes, quotes, photos, and videos honoring one of the most legendary self-promotional humanitarians in the sporting world, Muhammad Ali.
Born in 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali began training as a boxer at age 12 and he went on to represent the United States in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, winning a gold medal. He began boxing professionally later on that same year, eventually winning the Heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in 1964.
Ali was a colorful champion, something that still relatively new in the sports world. Sure, early baseball had Mike “King” Kelly, and later, Babe Ruth, but the world had not seen the combination of athleticism, showmanship, and outright, outspoken arrogance that was Muhammad Ali.
While you can argue that professional wrestling’s first true heel, “Gorgeous” George Wagner, was a more brash figure than Ali, he was really just the prototype for attention. It was Ali’s true talent in the ring — his ability to make violence beautiful — that truly captured our imagination.
That, and, well, he was a rebel who backed up his words. In the world of sport, their is often no honor among thieves. Athletes cheat, lie, steal, gamble, carouse, and get away with all of it. And we still admire them. Not for that shameful behavior, but for what they can do on the court.
Or on the field.
Or between the lines.
Or in the ring.
While Ali dazzled in the ring during his boxing career, it was his ability to stand by convictions that made him a true hero.
When Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted in the U.S. armed forces in 1966 due to his faith. He stood up for his own beliefs and refused to be knocked down by anyone, despite losing more than four years — ages 25-29 — of his athletic prime.
Upon his return to the sport, and eventually regained the Heavyweight title from George Foreman in the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, holding the belt until a loss to underdog Leon Spinks in 1978. The hubris that made Ali such a great public face of boxing had caught up to him, as the champ showed up under-practiced and out-of-shape in the loss to Spinks.
By 1981, Ali was done in the ring, but greater challenges awaited, as he remained a remarkable public figure.
Post-boxing, Ali maintained a presence at countless charitable events and celebrations. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali would be the public face of that illness for many years, continuing to share his message of hope and determination right up until his life ended late Friday night.
Ultimately, Ali will not be remembered for his boxing. He will not be praised as the best boxer who ever lived.
Instead, Ali will be remembered as an icon of sport; a celebrity who always knew what to say and when to say it; a true master of presentation and publication.
The accolades and epitaphs for Ali could keep going on and on, but the best way to summarize the man is with his own words:
“I am the greatest; I said that even before I knew I was.”