RIO DE JANEIRO – Olympic boxer Gary Russell already knows what he’s going to do with his light welterweight gold medal if he wins it: he’s going to dedicate it to Muhammad Ali.
Ali was many things to many people. He was a boxer, an activist, a humanitarian and much more. He also made an impact on Team USA’s boxers, who shared their thoughts on Ali ahead of an Olympics without “The Greatest.” He died of septic shock on June 3, 2016, at 74.
“We all have an expiration date,” Russell said. “I believe that he conditioned many of us to be great. He wanted us to walk in his footsteps because he was a great person. Truly speaking from my soul, I would dedicate this gold medal to him.”
Middleweight Claressa Shields, who won gold at the London Games in 2012, met Ali once. He had already been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. His death, she said, made Shields feel like “a huge part of me had left.”
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“I just remember when I met him I felt this sense of pride,” Shields said. “Coming up, he was the first African-American to actually sit out there and tell you, back when they said that blacks were ugly, he said, ‘I’m black and I’m pretty, and I can fight.’ He gave that belief that you are beautiful, that you are pretty.”
Shields continued: “The way that he brought people together by showing his love for the world, he wanted to bring people together and have us help each other. That’s one of the biggest things I think that he left for me. If you wanted to continue his legacy, it’s not just with boxing. He wanted you to bring people together … and help each other. I hope I can do him justice when I speak about him and also when I fight. Nobody will ever be known as great as Muhammad Ali, ever. But at least I can try to get close.”
For Antonio Vargas, it was Ali who motivated and inspired him as a young boxer.
Before a distinguished pro career, Ali won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Then known as Cassius Clay, he won all four of his fights in his only Olympic Games appearance at 18. His role in Olympic history extended to Atlanta in 1996, when he held the torch that lit the Olympic Flame.
Like Ali, middleweight boxer Charles Conwell is 18 and just out of high school. He’s the youngest of the eight Team USA boxers.
“Muhammad Ali coming straight out of high school, going to the Olympics, and me doing the same thing,” Conwell said, “it’s a big inspiration and motivation for me to go get the gold medal, fight even harder and live up to his legacy.”
The United States has not won a gold medal in men’s boxing since Andre Ward in 2004 in the light heavyweight division. The boxing competition began on Saturday.
“Bringing home the gold medal,” said lightweight Carlos Balderas, “it would honor Muhammad Ali a lot.”
Frank Gogola is a student in the Sports Capital Journalism Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.