Whenever a list of the greatest sportsman in history is compiled, one name floats – like a butterfly – to the top. But Muhammad Ali’s name will forever bear significance beyond the world of sport, representing philanthropy, humanitarianism and the triumph of principle over the establishment.

Arguably the greatest heavyweight in boxing history, Muhammad Ali famously talked a big game. His boxing robes were emblazoned with legends ‘The Greatest’, ‘The Lip’ and ‘Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ and he perfected the art of ‘trash talk’, psyching out opponents with a combination of personal insults and messianic self-belief. His most famous bouts were named like blockbuster movies: The Fight of the Century (1971 versus Joe Frasier), The Rumble in the Jungle (1974 versus George Foreman) and The Thrilla in Manila (1975 versus Frasier). His life has been celebrated on screen in both film and docudrama such as The Greatest, When We Were Kings and Ali, starring Will Smith.

In his prime, Ali was as famed for his civil rights activism as he was for his signature ‘snake lick’ knockout punch. He emerged as a figurehead for Black Pride after winning the World Heavyweight Championship for the first time in 1964, when he dropped his ‘slave name’ Cassius Clay for Muhammad Ali and joined the Nation of Islam. Ali dodged the US Army draft in 1967 saying, “I got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. They never called me nigger.” Because of this, he was stripped of his titles (subsequently reinstated) and lost four years in the ring in a decade that is now acknowledged as the sport’s golden age.

Muhammad Ali

Though he treasured a boxing robe embroidered with ‘The People’s Choice’ presented to him in Las Vegas by Elvis Presley in 1974, Ali too prided himself by dressing like a gentleman outside the ring. Combining showmanship and politics, he appropriated the wardrobe of an affluent Wall Street banker. His black or navy pinstripe two-piece suits were cut with narrow lapels and a high break because the wide collars fashionable in the 1970s would only emphasise his bulk. By night, he dressed like a movie star in black tie cut with satin lapels and a ribbon bow tie. Ali was famously photographed being fitted for a Savile Row suit from the Helman Brothers Harry and Burt: a political statement of black pride at the heart of the establishment.

Muhammad Ali’s choice of watch was equally conservative. He bought his Cartier Tank on February 14, 1976 in Puerto Rico, where he was training for his fight with Jean-Pierre Coopman. The class, elegance and understatement of the Cartier plays into the psychology of a self-made black superstar who could, if he wished, show off with a diamond-encrusted, yellow-gold monstrosity. But he chose not to. Ali took his responsibility as a role model seriously. It was his choice to stage fights in the developing world – Manila, Kinshasa, Kuala Lumpur – and draw attention to poverty and injustice that he recognised and fought with equal vigour.

The sporting legend retired from boxing in 1981 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease three years later. He has inspired successive generations with his humanitarian endeavours – people who weren’t even born when Ali was in his prime. His message of self-belief underpinned by punishing training has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the great man said, “I hated every minute of training but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.”

Taken from an article by James Sherwood in Revolution’s archives.