Without question, Muhammad Ali (who died on June 3rd, 2016) transformed the world of sports. Winning the heavyweight title three times — beginning with his shocking upset of Sonny Liston in 1964, which made him the youngest boxer to unseat an incumbent heavyweight champion — Ali is considered, alongside Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, one of the best boxers ever to enter a ring. Though his pugilistic style was unorthodox and an affront to boxing purists at the time, his dazzling combination of speed and power revolutionized the sport, and most boxing observers have now come to agree with Ali’s longtime boast that he was “The Greatest of All Time.”
But while his achievements in the ring may have earned him the title of Sports Illustrated‘s “Sportsman of the Century” in 1999, it was really Ali’s appeal outside the arena that made him perhaps the most recognizable and beloved figure on the planet. Other than Jackie Robinson, who shattered baseball’s racial barrier in 1947, no one can rival his impact as a transcendent 20th Century American sports figure. The only things quicker than his fists and feet were his mind and mouth: Speaking truth to power, the loquacious Ali said things in a confrontational, even “arrogant” manner that mainstream America was not yet prepared to hear, especially coming out of the mouth of a young black man.
Expressing himself with force and forthrightness — not to mention no small amount of charm and charisma — Ali became a magnetic symbol of dignity and self-determination to several generations of African-Americans, a titan worthy of the honorific “the People’s Champ.” Here are four ways his legacy helped shape modern America:
Introducing “Black Power” to White America
Four years before James Brown recorded “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” in 1968, and two years before Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Stokely Carmichael first used the term “Black Power” within weeks of each other in the spring of 1966, Ali had become the physical manifestation of the concept. Shortly after defeating Liston on February 25th, 1964, the new heavyweight champion announced that he was changing his given “slave name” of Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali, one chosen for him by Elijah Muhammad’s black-separatist sect the Nation of Islam. Many sportswriters (and even some of Ali’s boxing rivals) refused to address him by his new name, continuing to call him Cassius Clay. “I know where I’m going and I know the truth and I don’t have to be what you want me to be,” Ali said at his first post-championship press conference. “I’m free to be what I want.”
In the months and years that followed, Ali transformed himself from being merely a boxing champ to a champion of his people, speaking out against injustice and racial inequality. He was frequently misunderstood by the media, which at the time was almost exclusively white (as opposed to just overwhelmingly so today). At the height of the Civil Rights era, his embrace of the Nation of Islam’s rejection of racial integration was seen by many as just another form of bigotry — the NOI was considerably feared at the time and targeted by the FBI — and throughout the rest of his life he was called on to act as an ambassador for his religion as probably the most famous Muslim American in history, other than perhaps his mentor Malcolm X.
Ali left the NOI for the more mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975, devoting much of his later life to charitable work. After 9/11, he spoke out against the terrorist attacks: “That really hurt me, because Islam is peace and is not violent,” he said. “The few that do these things make the religion as a whole look bad.” His commitment to freedom of speech and of religion truly embodied the constitutional freedoms our Founding Fathers proscribed, something made even more resonant by our current political climate of dangerous demagoguery.
Jumpstarting the 1960s Antiwar Movement
In March 1966, after Ali’s draft status was reclassified and he became eligible to serve in the military, the champ made headlines around the world when he refused his induction into the U.S. armed forces, invoking his constitutional right to decline service as a conscientious objector. The Vietnam War was still supported by a majority of Americans at the time; Ali’s decision to speak out against it was hugely controversial, and he was pilloried by politicians and the media as a coward and traitor. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” explained Ali of his motivations. “How can I shoot those poor people? Just take me to jail.”
Ali was acting not from fear but from the strength of his convictions, and he paid a heavy price. In March 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight title, and that June he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He was effectively banned from boxing for three and a half years, stripped of his passport and unable to obtain a license to box in any state. Sacrificing the prime years of his career cost him untold millions, leaving him in debt and leading him years later to fight well past the point when he should have retired, absorbing damaging blows that many believe led to the Parkinson’s disease he suffered from for the final three decades of his life.
But Ali’s principled stand essentially jumpstarted the Sixities antiwar movement, and helped encourage Martin Luther King to come out against the conflict in Vietnam in April 1967. He became a popular speaker on college campuses during his exile from the ring, and in 1971, his conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in a unanimous vote. Acting on his conscience made Ali into the quintessential model of the politically conscious athlete, and his influence was felt from Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists in protest on the 1968 Olympics medal stand to outfielder Curt Flood’s 1969 challenge against baseball’s reserve clause, which ultimately led to the free-agent era. His courage remains an inspiration to anyone acting on principle in defiance of prevailing public opinion today .
The Athlete as Brand-Name Entertainer
A pop culture icon on par with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, Ali also had a huge impact on the entertainment industry. He cut his first album in 1963 when he was still Cassius Clay, a spoken word record on Columbia called I Am the Greatest! (with liner notes written by poet Marianne Moore) which also included his cover of “Stand By Me.” The album reached a peak position of No. 61 on the album chart and was nominated for a Grammy, though Ali would have to wait until 1976 to earn his next Grammy nomination (“Best Recording for Children,” for the pro-dental hygiene novelty record The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay).
Ali has been the subject of 10 films thus far, from excellent documentaries like When We Were Kings (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1996) and The Trials of Muhammad Ali (about his Vietnam stance) to several dramatic offerings where he has been portrayed by Terrence Howard (in the 2000 ABC TV movie King of the World), Will Smith (in Michael Mann’s 2001 Ali, which garnered Smith his first Academy Award Best Actor nomination), and perhaps most fittingly, by Ali himself (in 1977’s The Greatest).
But Ali’s most enduring contribution to Hollywood arguably stems from his 1975 fight against a white journeyman named Chuck Wepner, aka “the Bayonne Bleeder.” The bout — in which 40-1 underdog Wepner nearly went a full 15 rounds with the champ, even knocking Ali to the canvas in the 9th — inspired struggling actor Sylvester Stallone to write the script for what would become Rocky (although Stallone would deny the direct connection for years, eventually settling a lawsuit by Wepner in 2006). In 2002, Ali was awarded a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame, but his is the only one displayed on a wall and not on the sidewalk: Ali insisted his plaque not be on the ground, so that so that no one could step on the name of the prophet Muhammad.
The Spiritual Father of Rap
Though he came to prominence over a decade before hip-hop music began germinating in the South Bronx, one of Ali’s most unsung and enduring legacies is as a spiritual father of rap. Dubbed “The Louisville Lip,” Ali brought the playful trash-talking of African-American traditions like “the Dozens” out from playgrounds and street corners and into the mainstream. Boasting considerable freestyle skills, Ali’s early media appearances featured him holding court with the rhymes, flow, and braggadocio that would one day become typical of old school MCs like Run DMC and LL Cool J. Watch pre-Liston-fight footage of Ali cavorting with his cornerman Bundini Brown, and you’ll see an incandescent free spirit who’s like Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flava Flav wrapped up in one package, a revolutionary griot and signifying prankster: “Who would have thought when they came to the fight,” went one metered missive, “That they’d witness the launching of a black satellite? / Yes the crowd did not dream / When they put up the money / That they would see a total eclipse of the Sonny.”
With his embrace of whimsical poesy, Ali brought a touch of gentility to the most brutal of athletic pursuits. As he aged, he grew more wistful, and his non-rhymed pronouncements often took the form of inspirational epigrams, such as “A man who views the world the same at 50 as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” Despite his relative silence over the last three decades as Parkinson’s disease robbed him of his quicksilver tongue, he remained a powerful example for future generations of rappers, the shadow senator of the Hip Hop Nation. Ali’s outsized ego foreshadowed the vainglorious excesses of Kanye West, while his Afrocentric consciousness and cutting honesty pointed forward to modern bards like Rakim, Nas, Jay-Z, and Kendrick Lamar. (Not to mention that the Champ’s rivalry with Joe Frazier was an epic beef for the ages.) Over 50 years since he first shook up the world, Ali’s presence remains at the heart of hip-hop, a philosopher and poet hiding behind the fierce countenance of a warrior.
[Editor’s note: a version of this story was originally published June 2016]
From Rolling Stone US