Donal Lucey discusses the life of arguably the best boxer ever to grace the ring

This week the legend that is Muhammad Ali turned seventy. It is almost thirty years since he left the boxing ring and around the same amount since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Most of us today weren’t born when he had his epic clashes with Joe Frazier, treatment George Foreman and the US military, Yet Muhammad Ali is a name everyone knows. He remains one of the most admired human beings on the planet, constantly referenced by people as being an inspiration to them. It is a testament to the strength of the man himself that after thirty years ravaged by a horrible disease he has reached this milestone birthday.


The man who was born Cassius Clay from Louisville, Kentucky is one of the greatest boxers of all time and one of the most talked about characters of the twentieth century. Many will remember him for his victory over Sonny Liston in 1964 to win the Heavyweight title, an event which shook the world, or his heated rivalry with Joe Frazier. They will talk about his gold medal. It is a feeling shared by a lot of people that each boxing victory was not only an accomplishment for a man but at the time an accomplishment for black people and for human spirit in general. His boxing thrilled millions and the admiration he acquired afforded him the platform to express his view. Ali will always be remembered for being an elite athlete and doing extraordinary charitable and inspirational work. But there was another side of the man that seems to get ignored.


Ali did not become one of the most famous people at the time for winning lots of fights. He was a daily headline and a controversial figure. At the time he had as many people jeering him as cheering. A lot of the controversy outside the ring began when Ali joined the Nation of Islam group (also known as the Black Muslims). This changed him from an outspoken popular champ to a figure of great controversy which divided opinion. He became a voice for the radical opinions of the group. His beliefs at the time included that the white man was “the devil” and not “righteous”. On inter-racial marriage he once stated that no intelligent black man or woman in their right mind with let their children bring home a white partner. But the most controversial thing he did was his refusal to be drafted to the Vietnam War. This was at a time of great pride in representing your country and people chastised Ali for disrespecting a country whose national anthem once honoured him on the Olympic victory stand. When people give out about some of the modern day fighters conduct in the lead up to fights – such as David Haye and Floyd Mayweather – they should remember that Ali was no different. During his trilogy of fights with Joe Frazier, Ali treated him with disrespect. He characterised him as “Uncle Tom” and even created a hurtful rhyme before their third fight. “It will be killa…and a chilla…and a thrilla…when I get the gorilla…in Manila”. Frazier never forgave Ali and even said that when he watched Ali light the Olympic Fire at the 1996 Atlanta games he hoped Ali would fall in the fire. When he returned to boxing in the eighties he was a shell of his former greatness and was laughed at and parodied on such shows as “Saturday Night Live”.


But the greatness that is Ali transcended sport, disputing all our beliefs on how athletes should or shouldn’t behave. He was the icon of a generation and inspiration to everyone. He gave strength and pride to black people at a time of oppression. He has been liked and disliked but now is mostly loved and idolised. He is still a person that most of the world’s population would like to meet before they die. He has done incredible charitable work and has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Known simply (and yet tellingly) as ‘The Greatest’, he is a man that will be remembered not only for his long fighting career but also as his role as universally admired, global elder statesman. No one in the twentieth century had the same impact he did, inside and outside the ring.