Muhammad Ali: Packing A Punch

by Helmy Sa'at

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There have been many individuals who have excelled in their area of specialisations and industries. Yet, very few still would have successfully punched through several glass ceilings and achieved icon status, thus cementing his or her place in the history archives and inspiring many generations to come. Learn about the one and only boxing ace, Muhammad Ali, as we aspire to greatness in this world and the hereafter.

1942

Muhammad Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky, United States (U.S.) on January 17. He was named Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr..

1954 – 1960

His stolen red bicycle became the reason he dabbled in boxing at the age of 12. His initial impetus to avenge his loss on the perpetrator paved the way for his star boxing career, in adulthood. He was not impervious to racism, even then. At the young age of 13, he learnt of the vicious murder of 14-year old Emmett Till in Mississippi by a group of white people. He also attended Central High School, which was the first school for African Americans built using public funds. It was the only secondary school in his hometown that was available for African American students and teachers.

A pair of boxing gloves on the floor.

As a high school graduate, he had accumulated 100 wins and only 8 losses under his belt. He was even featured on TV. He had fought in 167 fights and won 161, by the end of 1960, at the age of 18!

One of his career defining moments was winning the gold medal in the Rome Olympics in September 1960. However, his great feat was met with rampant racism. Such mistreatments led him to throw his gold medal into the Ohio River in anger and bitter disappointment.

1964 – 1965

Islam came into Muhammad Ali’s life in 1964 with his conversion announcement in February 1964 (he only converted to Sunni [orthodox] Islam in 1975 and was also interested in the Sufi tradition, to help him better understand Islam). Before his official name change in March 1964, he was called Cassius X.

His bold decision had even been charged with fears of brainwashing that has been quickly debunked over the years. In recent years, some light has been shed as to possibly the real motivation behind his conversion. The impetus, according to Muhammad Ali himself, had been a pragmatic awakening that he was born as Cassius Clay, not by his own volition. Thus, empowering him to opt for change through peace by embracing Islam.

1966 – 1972

The “Fight of the Century” was held at Madison Square Garden in New York City on March 8, 1971. Both Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali had legitimate claims to be a heavyweight champion; however the latter was knocked down during the last round albeit he was back up on his feet in just three seconds! He lost by unanimous decision. It was Muhammad Ali’s first professional defeat!

Though, was this a true blow for Muhammad Ali? A dent in his legacy?

A quick jab during a boxing match.

At the height of the Vietnam War, 1966, he filed a Conscientious Objector application by asserting his conscientious objection to military service because of his understanding that Islam prohibited him from participating in a war. However, he lost all appeals within the federal government and was ordered to report for induction into the military, in April 1967. Subsequently, his continued refusal to do so lost him his title of ‘World Heavyweight Champion’ he won in 1964, in addition to being suspended from boxing in the U.S..

Despite all the years of trials and tribulations that plagued his personal and professional spheres, including being discriminated for the colour of his skin, chosen faith and being banned from boxing inside and outside of the U.S., his boxing license was finally reinstated in June 1970. Therefore, his first professional defeat in the boxing ring was not a defeat, after all. In fact, it was a triumphant return!

In January 1972, he made the pilgrimage to Mecca for Hajj.

1978 – 1981

A boxing practice using a punching bag.

Muhammad Ali made history by becoming the first man to win the heavyweight title three times, in September 1978. He was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, in 1983 followed by the the International Boxing Hall of Fame Museum, in 1990. (Interestingly, North Korea was also part of his illustrious career as a sportsman. In April 1995, he visited the hermit nation to attend a wrestling exhibition.)

He retired, again, in 1981 prior to his short-lived retirement in 1979 at 37 years old.

1988 – 2006

The World Economic Forum’s Council of 100 Leaders: West Islamic World Dialogue Initiative, in 2006, recognised his contributions in promoting dialogue about Islam, championing freedom and advocating for peace over the years.

In 2002, he visited Afghanistan on a three-day goodwill trip as the United Nations Ambassador of Peace. Its objectives were to raise awareness of the country’s needs and the United Nation’s work. He visited Sudan in 1988 and visited several refugee camps of victims displaced by famine and war. His international popularity and global outreach power certainly brought light to the plights of millions in need for the world to pay attention.

2016

Muhammad Ali died at the age of 74. After battling Parkinson’s disease, he died from septic shock (an infection in layman’s term) of unspecified natural causes, a day after being admitted to the hospital for other health conditions.