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.