It has been seven years since the death of Muhammad Ali, a titan of boxing and one of the most famous people to ever walk the planet.
Ali is remembered not just for his sporting feats, but also for his unwavering character, moral values, and the challenges he surmounted as a Black man during a time rife with racial tensions in an overwhelmingly white and Christian country.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942, Ali’s life would be shaped by what is now known as the “Red Bike Moment.”
That was when 12-year-old Ali’s new red bike was stolen and he found a policeman to report the crime – an event that would shape Ali’s entire life.
As fate would have it, the policeman Ali went to was Sgt. Joe Martin, a boxing trainer.
Ali spent six years training under Martin, who encouraged him to learn to fight before seeking retaliation.
In September 1960, after winning three bouts in the qualifying rounds of the Rome Olympics, Ali defeated Poland’s Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to win the light heavyweight gold medal at the young age of 18.
Four years later, he dethroned Sonny Liston in Miami to win his first world heavyweight boxing title, marking his arrival on the world stage.
In the same year, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, asserting that his previous name was a “white man’s name, a slave name.”
‘I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong’
One of the most important aspects of Ali’s personality was his stance against racism and war.
His signature quote – “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong” – is deemed as one of the strongest and most vocal opposition to America’s war on Vietnam, which the legendary boxer used to explain his refusal to be drafted for military service.
His stand cost him dearly: Ali was stripped of his title as world champion and barred from boxing in April 1967.
Just a little under four years later in March 1971, Ali was back in the ring for what was billed as “The Fight of the Century” – a showdown with Joe Frazier at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
After 15 rounds, the contest ended in defeat for Ali, the first loss of his professional career.
In January 1974, they squared off in a rematch at the same venue, where Ali prevailed after 12 rounds.
Another famous bout took place in October 1974 in central Africa.
The “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, today’s Democratic Republic of the Congo, ended with Ali knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round.
A year later in the Philippines, Ali took on Frazier for a third and last time, a clash for the heavyweight championship immortalized as “The Thrilla in Manila,” which he won after 14 rounds.
In February 1978, Ali lost to 1976 Olympic champion Leon Spinks, who won by a 15th round split decision.
Ali had his revenge seven months later, defeating Spinks at the Louisiana Superdome to become the first-ever three-time world heavyweight champion.
He announced his retirement in June 1979, only to return to the ring a year later.
In October 1980, Ali took on Larry Holmes in Las Vegas, losing after 10 rounds. He hung up his gloves for good the next year.
By then, Ali had started developing signs of Parkinson’s disease, which was officially diagnosed in 1984.
In 1996, Ali lit the Olympic flame for the Atlanta summer games, where he also received a replacement gold medal for the one he earned in 1960.
He said he had tossed that medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a restaurant that only served white people.
In 1999, he was chosen as the BBC’s “Sportsman of the Century,” a befitting honor for an athlete whose impact went well beyond the ring.
After a decades-long battle against Parkinson’s disease, Ali died on June 3, 2016, at the age of 74.
‘Greatest of all time’
Like many around the world, Turkish boxer Caner Sayak, a former world silver medalist in the light heavyweight category, regards Ali as the “greatest of all time.”
“I’m often asked if Ali would be as successful if he were to fight nowadays,” Sayak told Anadolu.
“He was the greatest of all time, not just his era. Mike Tyson also confirmed this.”
Sayak was referring to comments made by Tyson, who himself is considered one of the greatest boxers, in a television show alongside Ali.
“I know I’m great, but can I tell you something? In this situation, every head must bow, every tongue must confess, this is the greatest of all time,” Tyson said, pointing to Ali and drawing rapturous applause from the studio audience.
Sayak explained that most of what are regarded as modern boxing techniques were first employed by Ali.
“He was the foundation of what boxing is today. Ali was the forefather of all those techniques,” he said.
“Back then, boxing was all about stamina and power. But Ali would strategize and shape his moves according to his opponent.”
Elaborating on Ali’s unique abilities, Sayak said he would “set up his traps and beat his opponents when the bout was drawing to a close.”
“Ali only lost five matches in his career, and two of those losses took place when he was showing signs of Parkinson’s,” he added.
Sayak said Ali’s attitude was another factor that set him apart from his peers.
“What made him Ali was not just his fighting style, but also his rhetoric. He would trash-talk, say that he’s the best, and make his opponent accept his superiority before the bout,” he said.
Always a ‘good man’
Sayak was also full of praise for Ali’s strong character.
“He was already a good man before he converted to Islam,” he said, pointing to his stand against racism and war.
“Of course, after he converted to Islam, he was often criticized and blasted,” he added.
Sayak also shared insights about the inner mechanisms of the boxing world.
“In boxing, if you come to the forefront with just your skills, you are the best. But if you start talking about religion and politics, you are the worst,” he said.
“Ali started losing fans left and right. When we look at it, converting to Islam did not gain him anything. But nobody could stop him because he was the greatest.”
Source Anadolu Agnecy