Muhammad Ali, and why he mattered In this Feb. 18, 1964, file photo, boxer Muhammad Ali, or Cassius Clay at the time, beats his chest in triumph after toppling Britain's Beatles at his training camp in Miami Beach, Fla. The Beatles, left to right: Paul McCartney; John Lennon; George Harrison and Ringo Starr, were on Holiday in the resort after their American tour. (AP Photo/File/Michael Probst)
Muhammad Ali, and why he mattered
Lexile

During the Beatles' first visit to the United States in 1964, clever publicity agents arranged a meeting with Cassius Clay. He was training for the bout that would make him heavyweight boxing champion. The result was a memorable photo of a whooping Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali, standing astride four "knockout victims."
 
They were two emerging cultural forces beginning their path to global fame.
 
But as popular as the Beatles became, it was Ali who went on to become the most recognized person in the world. That picture was among the first to show him growing into that persona. He would take his place alongside the major cultural, political and entertainment figures of the era.
 
For a generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Ali was far more than a boxer. His identity blended boundaries. He was an entertainer, a man at the center of swirling political and cultural change, a hero -- and a villain -- to many for his brash self-assuredness. Ali died June 3 at age 74.
 
"Part of Muhammad's greatness was his ability to be different things to different people," retired basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote on Facebook.
 
"To sports fans he was an unparalleled champion of the world, faster and smarter than any heavyweight before. To athletes, he was a model of physical perfection and shrewd business acumen. To the anti-establishment youth of the 1960s, he was a defiant voice against the Vietnam War and the draft. To the Muslim community, he was a pious pioneer testing America's purported religious tolerance. To the African-American community, he was a black man who faced overwhelming bigotry the way he faced every opponent in the ring: fearlessly."
 
The stoic generation that had fought World War II returned home to raise children who became defined by rebelliousness, impatience and an unwillingness to accept things the way they were. Few people embodied that spirit quite like Ali.
 
To his job, he brought a joy and brutal efficiency. Ali didn't just beat opponents. He predicted which round he'd deliver the whuppin'. He spouted poetry while mugging for the camera.
 
Ali talked trash before the phrase was even invented. "This might shock and amaze ya, but I'm going to destroy Joe Frazier," he said. Much of it was good-natured, although his battles with Frazier later became ugly and personal.
 
Ali wasn't simply a loudmouth. With his beauty and grace within the ring, he delivered on the promises. He was like Michael Jordan became in another era, an athlete whose excellence could be appreciated by close and casual followers of his sport. But even Jordan, at the height of his fame, couldn't reach the profile that Ali did.
 
Outside the ring, the court fight over Ali's refusal to fight in the Vietnam War cost him three years at the peak of his career but earned him respect among the growing number of people turning against the war. His conversion to Islam, with his abandonment of the birth name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., tested the deepness of Americans' support for religious freedom, five decades before a presidential candidate talked openly about banning Muslims from coming to the United States.
 
It all made Ali the subject of countless arguments in playgrounds, bars, living rooms and offices. Everyone took sides when Ali returned from his suspension for refusing to join the military to fight Frazier. Whether or not you rooted for Ali often had little to do with boxing.
 
And think of it. When's the last time you argued with anyone about a heavyweight championship boxing match?
 
In a civil rights era when many Americans still denied the very humanity of black men, Ali became one of the most recognizable people on Earth.
 
"One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear," HBO host Bryant Gumbel told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser. "And I honestly believe that, for many black Americans, that came from watching Muhammad Ali. He simply refused to be afraid. And being that way, he gave other people courage."
 
Ali's transcendent force -- his comic bravado, physical beauty and insistence on being the master of his own story -- made him the athlete most favored by singers, intellectuals, filmmakers and other artists and entertainers. He socialized with Sam Cooke, Norman Mailer and George Plimpton. Ali's verbal sparring with sportscaster Howard Cosell helped make the latter's career. When Ali traveled to Zaire in 1974 for his "Rumble in the Jungle" against George Foreman, he was joined by James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba and other top musicians.
 
His legacy is captured in songs and prose that span decades. Author David Maraniss wrote about Ali in "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World."  Maraniss called him a "gift to writers because he offered so many themes. Bravery. Pride. Humor. Blackness. Universality.
 
"He was complex and contradictory yet simple and clear in what he said and what he represented," Maraniss told the AP.
 
Ali's fight against Foreman, and the odd conditions under which it was fought, became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary. It was titled, "When We Were Kings." In 2001, actor Will Smith starred in a Hollywood story of the boxer's life, "Ali."
 
Ali inspired songs from around the world. John Lennon borrowed Ali's "I'm the Greatest" catchphrase for a song that he gave to Ringo Starr. The 1977 biopic "The Greatest" was soon forgotten. But not the theme song later immortalized by Whitney Houston, "The Greatest Love of All." Rappers Jay Z, Kanye West, Nas, Common and Will Smith referenced Ali in their lyrics.
 
Parkinson's disease quieted the man himself in his later years. The reception given to a halting Ali as he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 made it clear he had made the transition from a polarizing to a beloved figure.

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
How did Muhammad Ali transcend sports?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (9)
  • jacksonm-4-bar
    6/09/2016 - 02:09 p.m.

    Muhammad Ali Transcended in sports because of his personality."His comic bravado, physical beauty and insistence on being the master of his own story " is what made Muhammad Ali one of the most popular athletes and one of the best athletes of his time.

  • vmichael-dav
    8/25/2016 - 09:30 p.m.

    In response to Muhammad Ali, and Why he Mattered I agree that Ali is one of the most beloved people of all time. Because of one reason, Ali would give people what they wanted to see. In the article it stated "One of the reasons the civil rights movement went forward was that black people were able to overcome their fear." And that Ali helped black Americans to overcome their fear. Finally I think that Ali showed he was god in and out of the rink, like when the article said that Ali stood up for Americans not to go into the Vietnam war, but later getting convicted for refusing to fight. Even though it states that Ali would talk a lot of trash talk, like when he would tell Joe Frasier,"This might shock and amaze ya, but I'm going to destroy Joe Frazier." I still think that Muhammed Ali is one of the most beloved fighters, and person of all time.

  • lbocc-wim
    10/21/2016 - 11:44 a.m.

    I enjoyed reading this article. I think that Muhammad Ali was a great influence to light the torch for the Olympic games in Atlanta Georgia. Ali has done many great things to achieve his boxing career and I thought it was a wonderful idea for Ali to began the Olympic Games of 1996. He was most famous for his boxing. Although the greatest has passed away, he will always be remembered in the best way possible towards his home town.

  • noahf-bru
    1/09/2017 - 03:11 p.m.

    According to the article,"Muhammad Ali, why he mattered," he transcended sports. Based on the text, he transcended sports by refusing to join the war. In conclusion, I learned that he was respected.

  • dannym2-sch
    1/23/2017 - 01:38 p.m.

    The reason why I think Muhammad Ali changed his name is that so he wouldn't sound week, " whooping Clay, who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali." Ali knows how to show good sportsmanship, "He was an entertainer, a man at the center of swirling political and cultural change, a hero..."

  • birzayitb1-sch
    1/23/2017 - 01:40 p.m.

    Muhammad Ali showed bad sportsmanship when he trash talked to other boxers, "This might shock and amaze ya, but I'm going to destroy Joe Frazier" The fact that he talked trash about other boxers, in this case, Joe Frazier, shows bad sportsmanship rather than trash talking he should of wished good luck to him.

  • alessandrol3-sch
    1/23/2017 - 01:40 p.m.

    Muhammad Ali showed bad sportsmanship when he trashed talk to other boxers like Joe Frazier. "This might shock and amaze ya, but I'm going to destroy Joe Frazier," this shows Ali not being a good person and a bad role model

  • janetb1-sch
    1/23/2017 - 03:17 p.m.

    Muhammad Ali exhibited positive sportsmanship by kind and fair treatment to everybody but also poor sportsmanship.

  • austinj-lew
    11/07/2017 - 12:54 p.m.

    I learned from this article that he was very respected by a lot of people around the world. He inspired a bunch of people by just being himself and always having a positive attitude. Muhammad Ali was a very respected person during his lifetime.

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