Why Muhammad Ali Was the Greatest

When Muhammad Ali was named by Sports Illustrated as the Sportsman of the Century in December 1999, not everyone was pleased. Some believed that his outspoken stances against war, racism, and oppression brought unwanted attention to the world of sports. Others believed that, despite Ali’s amazing achievements in a colorful 21-year professional boxing career, there were other athletes of distinction who were more deserving of consideration as the greatest sportsman of the 20th century.

They all missed the point.

Muhammad Ali is pretty much the only athlete who could be considered Sportsman of the 20th Century. Maybe even Sportsman of the Millennium. It’s a perfect title for him. After all, he was The Greatest.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Image: Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.
Image:
Bob Gomel/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

It’s no surprise that Sports Illustrated’s decision stirred controversy. Pretty much everything Ali did caused a row somewhere. And even though many of his detractors in the 1960s and 1970s thought he was un-American in his positions against Vietnam and the federal government’s tacit support of racial oppression, there are very few figures in history who more clearly embody the American Spirit.

In fact, Ali was all American—loud, boisterous, never turning a blind eye to injustice, never backing down to a challenge, never giving up, and always giving it his all.

Sure, Muhammad Ali had a big mouth. That was one comment I remember hearing as a kid from sports fans who were annoyed by him. But he had the skills to back up that mouth. And that is a rare quality in this world.

Ever since Ali took home the gold in the 1960 Olympics, the man formerly known as Cassius Clay dominated the sport of boxing. He smoked Sonny Liston in 1964, and took on all the foolhardy challengers that followed. He had a wing span that made hiding from him in the ring impossible. He was incomparably fast on his feet for a heavyweight. And he could take a punch that would knock a small horse on its ass.

Ali gets his poetic mouth taped by trainer Angelo Dundee. Image: George Silk—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Ali gets his poetic mouth taped by trainer Angelo Dundee.
Image: George Silk—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

There was no telling where Ali’s skills would take him in the 1960s, but he had a different plan in mind for his life. His conversion to Islam and his refusal to be drafted during the Vietnam War alienated many sports fans and cost him his championship belt in 1967. He would reclaim it a few years later, and each subsequent championship bout would bring bigger purses and more publicity.

Ali’s professional fall from grace was a slow and rather painful one, but he refused to let the ravages of age and combat dictate his actions. He was already showing early signs of Parkinson’s disease when he fought Larry Holmes in October 1980. It would not be his final fight, but the loss to Holmes was so severe and complete, that it was clear to everyone that Ali’s boxing career was at an end.

But Ali never went away. He became an international ambassador of good will, traveling to impoverished nations to excite and inspire people and bring attention to the plight of the world’s poor. He effectively traded on his celebrity status in a way that endeared him to many, and he never stopped moving, even as Parkinson’s took a greater toll on his health and well-being.

Muhammad Ali truly was the Greatest. And not just because he told us he was. Ali was the Greatest because he made a whole generation of people believe that anything was possible. He demonstrated the power of the individual in sport and in life. And he led a life to be admired and looked up to.

Don’t count the days. Make the days count.
Muhammad Ali