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‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’: Remembering Muhammad Ali

Heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali passed away on 3 June 2016. While he was a celebrated sports personality, Ali was also deeply political, famously refusing to serve in the US military while they fought in Vietnam. He was an icon to America's civil rights and anti-war movement.

June 3, 2024 at 8:34 am

Legendary boxer and global icon Muhammad Ali passed away on 3 June, 2016. He had arguably “the most recognisable face and name in the world.” Known for his extraordinary achievements both inside and outside the ring, Ali’s legacy as a fighter for justice continues to inspire. His principled stance during the Vietnam War and his advocacy for civil rights have profound parallels with today’s student-led global protests against Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky, the boy who became Ali had his formative years influenced heavily by experiences of discrimination, particularly in the racially-segregated United States. At the age of 12, after his bicycle was stolen, a chance encounter with a local police officer who was also a boxing trainer led the young Cassius Clay to take up the sport. He vowed that if he ever caught the thief, he would “whup him.”

Clay’s amateur career was nothing short of spectacular. He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, and the 1960 Olympic gold medal in Rome.

“I didn’t take that medal off for 48 hours,” he said later. “I even wore it to bed. I didn’t sleep too good because I had to sleep on my back so that the medal wouldn’t cut me. But I didn’t care, I was Olympic champion.”

However, upon his return to the US, he was denied service at a “whites-only” restaurant. This disillusioned the young Clay, who would recount in his autobiography The Greatest, “I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it.”

His quick reflexes, powerful punches and unorthodox style quickly set him apart from his peers. He did indeed, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” one of his most famous quotes. Yet, it was his charisma, confidence and outspoken nature that began to capture the public’s imagination, earning him the nickname “the Louisville Lip”.

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Destined for greatness

Clay turned professional shortly after the Olympics, and by 1964 he was ready to challenge the much-feared Sonny Liston for the World Heavyweight Championship. Despite being the underdog, his speed and agility overwhelmed Liston who quit on his stool, in one of the biggest upsets in the sport.

After the fight, Clay declared famously, “I am the greatest!” and that he had “shook up the world.” At the time he was just 22-years-old, making him the youngest boxer ever to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion.

Under the mentorship of prominent Nation of Islam (NOI) minister and civil rights leader Malcolm X, the champion renounced his birth name, Cassius Clay, and adopted the name Muhammad Ali after converting to Islam and joining the NOI. Malcolm, or El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz as he would later be known, eventually embraced Sunni Islam, setting him at odds with his former group. Ali turned his back on Malcolm, a decision he would regret greatly later in life, as he eventually followed the same path towards orthodox Islam.

Ali’s decision was both a spiritual and political statement, as he became a vocal advocate for African American rights and a critic of racial injustice and US imperialism. Unsurprisingly, his unapologetic stance on civil rights and his brash personality made him a polarising figure, but it also earned him the admiration of millions at home and across the world, especially the Global South.

Ali’s reign as champion was marked by legendary fights, including his bouts with Joe Frazier and George Foreman. The “Fight of the Century” against Frazier in 1971 and the “Rumble in the Jungle” against Foreman in 1974 are considered two of the greatest in boxing history. The “Thriller in Manila” in 1975, the third and final fight between Ali and Frazier, is remembered as one of the most brutal and bitter showdowns in the sport.

Stripped of his titles

Ali’s career took a dramatic turn in 1967 when he refused to be drafted into the US military during the Vietnam War. Citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the war, Ali stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” This stance led to his arrest, the stripping of his boxing titles, and a ban from the sport for over three years, robbing him of the opportunity to fight in his prime. His principled stand against the war resonated with the growing anti-war movement, further cementing his legacy as a fighter for justice.

During his exile from boxing, Ali continued to speak out against the Vietnam War and racial inequality. His conviction was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971, allowing him to return to the ring. Although he regained the heavyweight title twice more, first against Foreman in 1974 and again against Leon Spinks in 1978, the years of inactivity had taken a toll on his physical abilities. However, as he demonstrated in the “Rumble in the Jungle”, he retained a high boxing IQ with his rope-a-dope tactic, showing how brain can beat brawn.

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Life after boxing

Ali retired from boxing in 1981, leaving behind a legacy as one of the greatest athletes of all time, although some say he stayed in the sport too long. Nevertheless, his influence extended far beyond the ring. In retirement, Ali devoted himself to humanitarian work, using his fame to promote peace and social justice. He travelled extensively, delivering speeches and supporting charitable causes.

In 1990, the former champion played a crucial role in negotiating the release of 15 US hostages in Iraq following a meeting with Saddam Hussein. His efforts in the Middle East extended to advocating for Palestinian rights, and he was a vocal critic of US policies in the region. During a visit to Beirut, Ali stated that the: “United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism.”

While visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in South Lebanon he said: “I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.”

‘Your soul and your spirit never die, that’s gonna live forever’

Despite his declining health due to Parkinson’s disease, which he was diagnosed with in 1984, Ali remained active in public life. He lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Games, a moment that brought many to tears.

Muhammad Ali passed away on 3 June, 2016, at the age of 74. His death was met with an outpouring of grief and tributes from around the world. Ali’s legacy as a champion boxer, a civil rights activist and a humanitarian continues to inspire new generations.

The ongoing student protests for Gaza echo Ali’s own activism and his firm stance against injustice. In an Instagram post late last year, US Muslim Imam Omar Suleiman said: “From Vietnam to Gaza, speaking up against the war machine is never convenient. But being great means making great sacrifices for the truth. Muhammad Ali never missed the moment and that’s why he fought for Palestine too. Use your voice for humanity.”

If Muhammad Ali were still with us, he would undoubtedly have had much to say about Gaza. Although it is encouraging to see more celebrities and public figures using their platforms to speak out against the genocide being committed by Israel, Ali was ahead of his time in such matters, voicing his beliefs even when it came at great personal cost. This calibre of courage and integrity is rare today, but Ali’s legacy continues to inspire others to stand up fearlessly for what they believe in.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.