It’s fitting that today is not only Martin Luther King Jr. Day but also the 80th anniversary of the birth of Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (after 1964, known as Muhammad Ali).  Either way, this is a great day. Both men could lay claim to being “The Greatest,” but it happened to be the nickname for Ali, the world heavyweight boxing champion. Even people who otherwise hated sports loved Ali. He was a poet, a dancer, an actor and a troublemaker. And his failure to follow the script of the Black athlete in the 1960s and 1970s—keep his mouth shut, smile for the camera and praise The Man—was an inspiration for those who could not follow their own designated scripts.

In 1967, at a U.S. Army induction center in Houston, Muhammad Ali, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world—arguably the most famous athlete on the planet, known from the penthouses of Manhattan to the huts of New Guinea, from L.A. bungalows to Inuit igloos, etc.—refused to step forward when his name was called for the military draft. Putting aside the politics and racism of that time and place—as toxic then as now, possibly proof that evolution either doesn’t exist or has simply stopped working—this single act cost him his title and more than three years of a sports career in his prime (the actual punishment was a 5-year prison sentence, loss of title, and a fine of $10,000) until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

Had Ali stepped forward at that induction center in 1967, he would have been, like Elvis Presley, given a cushy posting and sent to some safe redoubt, like Germany or Kansas, and used as a publicity prop for the military. He could have done his 2-year stint while continuing to box and be hailed as a hero, a “real American” and a patriot upon his discharge. But he chose not to, for many reasons, not the least of which was he had no desire to fight for a country that would not fight for his own rights as a Black citizen here at home.

Muhammad Ali 1966, via creative commons

Is there any other modern athlete who has sacrificed as much for a simple belief? Maybe Colin Kaepernick comes closest in recent years, but then he didn’t have the track record and universal name recognition as Ali, nor was he the absolute best at his sport.

Muhammad Ali speaks to the press after refusing his induction:

That’s one of the myriad reasons why Muhammad Ali was, as he constantly reminded us, “The Greatest”.

Here are some other reasons: 

1) In his first championship fight, he was an 8 to 1 underdog David to Sonny Liston’s Goliath. He won the heavyweight title in that first fight, on Feb. 25, 1964 in Miami Beach when a weary, battered Liston did not answer the bell for the 7th round. A round earlier, Ali had been blinded by a substance on Liston’s gloves that some have speculated was a crude attempt to maim him by Liston’s handlers. It was, indeed, clear by the 4th round that Clay was the superior fighter. Liston, the man other boxers were afraid to fight, was toyed with for 6 rounds by a fleet-footed, mouthy, 22-year-old. Nothing like it had ever occurred in a heavyweight championship fight.

2) After that fight, Clay announced that he’d changed his name to Muhammad Ali. All of this is covered in Ken Burns’ plodding, four-part PBS series, which aired last September, but a far more engaging and fascinating look at the events was provided by a fictionalized version these events, One Night in Miami, directed by Regina King, which aired earlier last year.

3) Clay (now known as Muhammad Ali) defended his title in a rematch with Liston the following May in Lewiston, Maine. That fight ended in a controversial 1st round knockout when a “phantom punch” felled the giant Liston after only a little over one minute in the fight. Did Liston take a fall? You be the judge:

4) What Ali did was radical and risky in the 1960s. It’s a wonder he wasn’t gunned down in the street by a gang of racists. My words can’t do justice to the master of provocation himself, so let me play this clip, which, when it was broadcast in 1967, summed up the feelings of the marginalized in America. And it still feels that way today. Ali kicked all of their asses without throwing a single punch.

5) Ali’s prefight “mouthing off,” which earned him the early nickname the “Louisville Lip,” and his showboating in the ring, were partly performance art. They were modeled on professional wrestler Gorgeous George, whom Ali met in Las Vegas early in his boxing career. The 19-year-old Cassius Clay listened as Gorgeous George—who had a passing resemblance to Jerry Lee Lewis—told a radio audience that if he lost his upcoming match against Freddie Blassie, he’d “crawl across the ring and cut my hair off. But that’s not going to happen because I’m the greatest wrestler in the world.” Clay/Ali went to the match and later recalled, “I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, ‘This is a good idea!’” In the locker room afterward, George gave the young boxer this advice: “A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous.” 

A short video about Gorgeous George:

6) Any appearance by Ali—before the deeper onset of his Parkinson’s disease, likely the result of taking too many punches in the head from the likes of Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Spinks, et al., while doing the “Rope-A-Dope”—was gloriously unpredictable. Even something as inane as a daytime appearance on The Mike Douglas Show in 1974 made for great theater. In this case, an added bonus was that Sly Stone was also a guest on the show. Looking elegantly wasted in his chest-baring stage costume, his wild hair and massive sideburns, stoned patter and gold chains, Sly was in stark contrast to Ali’s clean-shaven, clean-cut, coat-and-tie appearance. In fact, as the interview went on, Sly looked increasingly ridiculous and faded into the background. Meanwhile, Mike Douglas was tongue-tied by Ali on his own show. The champ turned the tables on him, directing the conversation where he wanted it to go and summing up the inanity of daytime TV: “These shows are so phony…Everything is a laugh here in America. Ain’t nobody serious.” Then he does this mock ‘hee hee hee hee’ thing that’s almost punk in its gleeful sarcasm. At this point, even Sly is begging him to chill out, but he won’t stop! He can’t stop. He is Muhammad Ali, The Greatest!

7)  That he came back from more than three years of exile and, on March 8, 1971, stepped into a ring at Madison Square Garden against Joe Frazier is nearly miraculous. He lost a split decision that night—Frazier was a far more skilled boxer than the lumbering Sonny Liston had been—but he then came back to reclaim the heavyweight crown against a much younger, bigger and stronger George Foreman. (He also defeated Frazier in two more rematches, including the legendary “Thrilla in Manila”). The Leon Gast-directed, Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996) was about Ali’s trip to Africa to fight George Foreman. It captures Ali in all his glory like no other film before or since.

Boxing got considerably less interesting or monumental after 1981, when Ali left the sport (or “the sweet science,” as it was called by cigar-chomping sportswriters back in the day). By then, his face was puffy and he was taking brutal punishment in the ring from the likes of Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick, both of whom defeated him at the end of his career. Ali was still a force for good in the world and would remain so until his death, though he became increasingly debilitated by the Parkinson’s Syndrome that resulted from his boxing days.

There were blips of interest—Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns,  but nobody had used the sport as a forum, or a referendum, on America the way Ali had. 

The day Muhammad Ali died—June 4, 2016—the world became a little less light.

Muhammad Ali stands over fallen challenger Sonny Liston, May 25, 1965, in Lewiston, Maine. AP Photo/John Rooney via Creative Commons