Muhammad Ali: 'Greatest' boxer, showman, ambassador

Sat Jun 4, 2016 1:52pm EDT
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By Bill Trott

(Reuters) - More than 60 years ago, a bicycle thief in Louisville, Kentucky, unknowingly set in motion one of the most amazing sports careers in history.

An angry 12-year-old Cassius Clay went to a policeman on that day in 1954, vowing he would find the thief who took his bike and have his revenge. The policeman's advice was to learn to box first so Clay, who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali, went to a gym, where he learned quite well.

He would go on to be a record-setting heavyweight champion and also much more. Ali was handsome, bold and outspoken and became a symbol for black liberation as he stood up to the U.S. government by refusing to go into the Army for religious reasons.

As one of the best-known figures of the 20th century, Ali did not believe in modesty and proclaimed himself not only "the greatest" but "the double greatest."

He died on Friday at the age of 74 after suffering for more than three decades with Parkinson's syndrome, which stole his physical grace and killed his loquaciousness.

Americans had never seen an athlete - or perhaps any public figure - like Ali. He was heavyweight champ a record three times between 1964 and 1978, taking part in some of the sport's most epic bouts. He was cocky and rebellious and psyched himself up by taunting opponents and reciting original poems that predicted the round in which he would knock them out in. The audacity caused many to despise Ali but endeared him to millions.

"He talked, he was handsome, he did wonderful things," said George Foreman, a prominent Ali rival. "If you were 16 years old and wanted to copy somebody, it had to be Ali."

Ali's emergence coincided with the American civil rights movement and his persona offered young blacks something they did not get from Martin Luther King and other leaders of the era.   Continued...

Muhammad Ali with his trainer Angelo Dundee ahead of his fight with Ernie Terrell at the Astrodome, Houston, February 1967. 
Action Images / MSI