He was, quite simply, The Greatest of All Time.
From the moment he emerged on the Olympic scene as an 18-year-old back in 1960, when he came home from Rome as an Olympic champion boxer, through his pro career when he became the first boxer to win three world heavyweight titles, to making one of the most impactful moments when he lit the Olympic cauldron to open the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Muhammad Ali became one of the most recognized athletes in the world.
Even as Parkinson’s Disease took control over his once nimble and powerful body, Ali continued to remain a global presence.
He died at the age of 74 in Phoenix.
"The USOC is deeply saddened to hear that the sports world has lost one of its most iconic figures in Muhammed Ali," United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said. "As we reflect on his accomplishments and victories, we are proud to call Ali not only a member of Team USA, but an Olympic champion. With unparalleled grit and determination, he left a legacy that will continue to inspire generations of Americans for years to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time."
Ali, born as Cassius Clay on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, mesmerized the world not only with his skills in the ring but with his poetry and poise, his prettiness and his protests. He was full of complexities, building a reputation as a fighter, yet he also became one of the most prominent anti-war activists who was stripped of his boxing license when he refused to fight in the Vietnam War. He made a career on delivering knockout punches, but he became an endearing soul as he stood, with his arm shaking, in Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium to light the cauldron.
“Something so striking about him,” longtime NBC sports broadcaster Bob Costas said of Ali on the night the boxer lit the Olympic cauldron, “is his legacy as a man of principle and as a rebel, as a guy who stood up against establishment and prevailed for what he believed in, is undiminished because of the warmth of his personality and the basic decency of the man which is so apparent he transcends all those political categories and is beloved by everyone.”
Ali’s career has been examined in more than 100 books; there have been numerous films about him, most notably, “When We Were Kings,” and an $80 million building named in his honor was dedicated in his hometown of Louisville.
He became a global icon in an era that long pre-dated social media, and his fights became must-see TV in living rooms around the world.
Much of the hype surrounding Ali he helped create by making bold and poetic pre-fight statements. Among his most memorable comments was that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Before his third – and final – fight, against Joe Frazier in the Philippines, Ali said, “It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila.”
Ali, then Cassius Clay, was 12 when he was introduced to boxing. After his bicycle was stolen, he reported the crime to a local police officer who suggested that the boy take up boxing. Clay followed that advice, taking to training immediately. He went on to win Golden Gloves titles and qualified for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games. After winning the first three preliminary rounds, Clay was matched against Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland in the final.
Pietrzykowski was a veteran of 231 fights. Clay, according to noted Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, was a mere amateur. But he dominated the final round to win the gold medal by unanimous decision.
Clay became an instant American hero and even stood up for the United States when a Soviet journalist questioned Clay about the social inequities he faced back home as a black man. Wallechinsky recounted in his Complete Book of The Olympics, “we got qualified men working on that problem. We got the biggest and the prettiest cars. We get all the food we can eat. America is the greatest country in the world, and as far as places I can’t eat goes, I got lots of places I can eat – more places I can than I can’t.”
Yet it was not long after the 1960 Games that Clay began to question his identity and the discrimination that was happening in the country.
According to the book, The Greatest, Ali said he was refused service at a restaurant and subsequently tossed his gold medal into the Ohio River.
Four years after winning his gold medal at the Olympic Games, he won his first professional heavyweight title, when he beat Sonny Liston. That same year, Clay officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali. He aligned himself with the Islamic religion and Elijah Muhammad, a leader in the Nation of Islam, announced Clay’s name change in a radio broadcast. From then on, he was known as Muhammad Ali. Muhammad means “one worthy of praise,” and Ali is the name of a cousin of a prophet.
Ali became embroiled in America’s political fights, and refused to join the U.S. Army because of his opposition to the war in Vietnam. As a result, he was barred from boxing and stripped of his title.
Ali took his battle all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court … and won.
Ali went on to win two more heavyweight titles, becoming the first boxer to claim three, and his battles against the likes of Joe Frazier and George Foreman became legendary.
Ali announced his retirement in 1979, but a little more than a year later, he was back in the ring. He faced Larry Holmes, who pounded Ali for 10 rounds before the match was called off. Four years later, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disease that impacts the brain.
In the years following his diagnosis, Ali struggled to control his body movement and had difficulty speaking, but he remained one of the most recognized athletes. A man once known for his brash comments and ferocious sport became one of the most endearing athletes.
He didn’t show that side of his personality in public, but his daughter Hana said that he did, indeed, have a “softer side.” In an interview with “Today” show host Matt Lauer in October 2014, Hana Ali said her father would chase the kids around the house and loved magic tricks.
“He had an intensely softer side where he really engaged us as children,” Hana Ali said. “He didn’t banish us to the kid room.”
Although he is most remembered for his boxing prowess, Ali will forever be recalled for igniting the Olympic flame in Atlanta during the 1996 Opening Ceremony. Dick Ebersol, who was president of NBC Sports at the time, heavily lobbied Billy Payne, the top organizer of the Atlanta Games, to have Ali light the cauldron. Even as Payne recovered from neck surgery, Ebersol reportedly mailed him videotapes of Ali.
There was some concern that Ali’s struggle with Parkinson’s would prevent him from being able to light the cauldron and Olympic swimming champion, Janet Evans, who was to hand the torch to Ali, was told to help the boxing great if he had any difficulties. On July 19, 1996, the night of the Opening Ceremony, Ali stood tall. Although his hand and his head shook, he lit the cauldron on his own and left many of the 85,000 fans in attendance and billions of TV viewers in tears.
The collective gasp from the crowd when it saw Ali appear was well worth it to Ebersol.
``It was one of the greatest things in my life,'' Ebersol told The Chicago Tribune.
In a news conference in Atlanta, longtime Olympic writer Philip Hersh asked Evans about her moment in time with Ali and whether that would be the highlight of her career – even more than her accumulating Olympic medals in the pool.
“Of course,” Evans responded. “You know I will give up every medal for that again.”
At every Olympic Games, there is plenty of speculation about who will light the cauldron and the Games in Atlanta were no different. One of the favorites for the job was another boxer, Evander Holyfield, who hailed from Atlanta.
“We were all speculating like crazy,” said Wallechinsky, who was a radio commentator during that Opening Ceremony. “It was released to us on a handout right before it happened. It was just so moving.”
The athletes were equally stunned.
Matt Ghaffari, a wrestler who had stood alongside Larry Bird and Michael Jordan during the Opening Ceremony in Barcelona and marveled at Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo shooting an arrow to ignite the flame in 1992, was even more moved in Atlanta in 1996.
“I was on the field, in the second row,” Ghaffari said. “As the host country, the United States came in last and it got very, very exciting. Everyone wanted to know who was going to light the flame. After seeing Ali up there, I got so motivated. I remembered being with my family back in Iran staying up until four in the morning to watch him fight in Africa. And here he was, shaking. If they would’ve let me wrestle right after the Opening Ceremony … wow … I had so much adrenalin from that moment.”
Ghaffari, who moved with his family from his native Iran to the United States in 1976, said Ali’s impact was especially strong in the Middle East, where he became a hero among Islam followers. He recalled taking his parents to an event which featured Ali and said, “they were just mesmerized by him.”
Later during those Games, during intermission of a Team USA-Yugoslavia men’s basketball game, then-IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch presented Ali with a replacement gold medal. The tale of him throwing his medal into the Ohio River could never be proven and most historians believe his original Olympic medal from Rome simply was lost.
In 2012, Ali received the Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia for his humanitarian efforts.
“Honestly the first thing I think of is just how I shared my father with the world,” said Ali’s daughter Laila when she presented her father with the award. “My father loves people and people love my father, and I learned that at a very young age, as people would always come up to him no matter where we went. And my father has always lived his life to make this world better for others. He’s strong, he's courageous, such a powerful man.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. She has covered five Olympic Games and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.