Muhammad Ali is the most influential sportsman of the 20th century, and it is not even close. He might be the most influential person of the 20th century.
Muhammad Ali influenced sports in countless ways. He was a showman who took boxing promotion to the next level all on his own. If he is not credited with the invention of talking trash, then he certainly took it to an unprecedented universe. Then, he backed his talk up.
Inside the ring Ali was one of the first heavyweights to use his quickness and nimble feet as a weapon. He tired opponents out by running all over the ring and then still packed a punch when the moment was right. He also defeated many opponents psychologically. His taunting before, and during, fights allowed him to live inside rivals’ minds.
Ali’s cultural impact is immeasurable. Ali is perhaps the most influential figure in hip-hop music; his swagger and rhyming served as the template for much of popular rap music. He is one of the most quotable athletes ever, often creating a lyric describing how great he was, or how he would beat an opponent. Basically every successful rapper of the past 30 years has tried to emulate Ali’s bravado and way with words. It is no coincidence the hip-hop culture began to take off in the late 1980’s, less than a decade after Ali’s career in the spotlight ended.
During his time Muhammad Ali was so outrageously different from the norm. He often described himself as “pretty,” an interesting term for a man to use to describe himself. No boxers were “pretty” – they were hit in the face too often to be so. The impact of Ali’s use of the word was at least twofold. In an athletic sense he pointed out his pretty face to showcase how rarely he was hit in the head, indicating his superior boxing skill. Culturally, his use of the word pretty was one of the many boasts of confidence in his looks that produced an image of pride in his race. He did not care what the media thought was classically good-looking, he was a good-looking black man and he would never let anyone forget it.
Even as Ali ascended to fame, he was never afraid to associate with all types of people. There are many stories of him hanging out on the streets of Chicago, Los Angeles, or Louisville, often performing magic tricks – one of his hobbies. Ali never missed an opportunity to entertain. He was a magician inside and outside of the ring.
The moniker most commonly associated with Ali is “The Greatest,” and it fits on so many levels. But an even more appropriate superlative might be “The Bravest.” Everything about Ali exemplified bravery. He was the first bold and boastful black athlete in the spotlight during a tumultuous time for racial relations America – after predecessors such as Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell were told to keep their head down and mouth shut. Ali was brave to breakthrough the typecast that sports journalists had for professional black athletes in the 1960’s.
Ali was brave, obviously, to be a professional boxer, fighting against some of the best heavyweights of all time like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. He took on all comers and was not afraid to talk trash first. Some of his most remarkable qualities as a boxer were his ability to take a hit and his stamina – and he daringly relied on those attributes in his strategy to defeat favored opponents.
Ali was brave to put his career, and potentially his freedom, on hold for his beliefs when he announced himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and refused to be inducted into the military. He was stripped of his title belt, denied his boxing license, and arrested for draft evasion. At the time he did not know how long he would be in prison, nor if he would ever box again.
Ali was brave to fight anytime, anywhere. In a career that lasted too long, he fought in 61 professional fights with a three-year hiatus in the middle of his career due to his license being suspended. He fought in every corner of the world. Two of his most famous and anticipated fights were in The Philippines and in Zaire. He also fought in Germany, Japan, Indonesia and the Bahamas.
Ali was brave to continue his philanthropy and remain in the public eye after his career when he was debilitated by Parkinson’s disease. He could have laid low as his symptoms were plainly visible and no one would have faulted him for it. Instead, he continued to travel the world speaking, entertaining, and spreading his message of peace, knowing that he looked nothing like the energetic, powerful man of his youth.
In 1996 Muhammad Ali was the final torchbearer and lit the Olympic cauldron for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Ali was a former Gold Medalist, but he might have been a difficult choice due to his Parkinson’s disease. Nevertheless, he was still chosen with the honor of lighting the flame at the last Summer games the United States would host in the 20th century. Ali has become a symbol of peace and freedom much in the same way that the Olympics are a symbol for those same ideas.
Muhammad Ali is among the most courageous athletes in American history. He is an icon, a legend, and a champion. A champion athlete, a champion activist, and a champion leader. The People’s Champion.