By former Assemblyman Steven Sanders
In many ways, Muhammad Ali symbolized the American Dream. Multitudes around the world mourn his passing because he was a reflection of ourselves, our aspirations, our times… the good and the bad. His mark is indelible.
Born Cassius Clay to a poor family in Louisville Kentucky when racism, segregation and poverty were still very much ingrained in the American culture, he learned how to box in a local gym from a police officer who took a liking to this young boy.
His innate pugilistic talents were quickly recognized and carried him to the 1960 Olympics in Rome where he won the Gold Medal at the age of 18. He became a professional fighter a year later. He beat the odds by winning the Heavyweight Championship from the nearly unbeatable and fearsome Charles Sonny Liston in 1964. He won the title a record three times while dominating the landscape of his sport for two decades.
He was nothing like the prototype slow moving, slow thinking palooka that was the image of a fighter. He redefined the art of boxing with his fast hands, lightning feet and ever present quips and at times cruel invective. He was nothing like anyone had ever seen before.
Along the way, he converted to Islam and became known as Muhammad Ali.
My love of boxing came from my dad, Murray, who had a distinguished amateur boxing career during his college years at CCNY. Like many boxing fans growing up in Stuyvesant Town in the 1960’s we either listened to Ali’s fights on the radio or went over to the Academy of Music theater on 14th Street near Third Avenue to watch his fights on the closed circuit TV big screen. Watching Ali was like watching a violent ballet; he truly floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee.
He was defiant and courageous… and controversial. He was politically conscious of the world around him. He would not remain silent in the face of perceived injustice.
Muhammad Ali’s sincere religious principles led him to sacrifice his championship and untold millions of dollars by his refusal to be inducted into the military during the Vietnam war. He was convicted of draft dodging, although that conviction, years later, would be overturned by The United States Supreme Court.
But in the meantime he was prohibited from boxing and earning a living from his sport for nearly four years at the peak of his career. How good he might have been we will never know.
The rest of his sports story is well known. He returned to the ring as an older fighter no longer as quick or as brash but good enough to regain his crown and fight on in some epic bouts before the inevitable erosion of his considerable skills.
Whether Muhammad Ali was the best boxer of all time is a matter of opinion. But what is undeniable is that he transformed boxing and ultimately transcended it through the force of his personality and the connections that he made with peoples from around the world. His impact on sports and culture was such that he was named by Sports Illustrated as the Sportsman of the Century in 1999, surpassing such icons as Babe Ruth, Jack Nicklaus, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.
Like a scene from a Greek tragedy, Ali suffered the loss of his two greatest attributes. The thousands of punches his body absorbed finally led to his decline and deterioration. It also brought on Parkinson’s Disease which cruelly robbed him of his amazing motor skills and his prolific speech.
But Ali would not go meekly. Even in the face of this debilitating disease he battled on appearing in public and defying his fate. He displayed grace in the face of adversity, again beating the odds. He refused to let Parkinson’s define him. Once more setting an example of defiance and courage once so prominent in the boxing ring and now present on the world stage.
He became one of the most admired of men of his generation. This child of humble beginnings who shocked the world of boxing grew into a legend who inspired the entire world. He may or may not have been the best… but he was the greatest.