What made Muhammad Ali “the greatest of all time” wasn’t just his fancy footwork in the ring and witty one-liners, but how he put his steadfast beliefs into action.
The incomparable boxer, who died Friday at the age of 74, lived a full life of serving those in need and he never compromised his integrity, even when he was criticized for it.
In his 2013 autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly, he told the world how he wanted to be remembered in his honest mission statement:
“I would like to be remembered as a man who won the heavyweight title three times, who was humorous, and who treated everyone right. As a man who never looked down on those who looked up to him, and who helped as many people as he could. As a man who stood up for his beliefs no matter what. As a man who tried to unite all humankind through faith and love. And if all that’s too much, then I guess I’d settle for being remembered only as a great boxer who became a leader and a champion of his people. And I wouldn’t even mind if folks forgot how pretty I was.”
Both locally and globally he lived out these words and the world is a better place because of it. Below are four of the many ways “The Greatest” left his mark on the world outside of the ring.
1. He was unapologetically black.
Ali had a message of black pride and vehement resistance to white supremacy. Embedded with his Islamic teachings, Ali was publicly outspoken and unapologetic in his beliefs on race. With close ties to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael, it’s hard to separate him from the Black Power Movement. He helped show blacks in America their connection with the African continent. He even denounced his birth name, Cassius Clay, in 1964 calling it his “slave name.”
Even when he was often criticized for being controversial and too radical, he spoke his truth. “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize,” he once said. “But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”
He opened the door for many black athletes to be able to express their beliefs today. Never in his life or post-life has Ali “transcended race.” He represented blackness through and through.
2. He spoke out against the Vietnam War.
Anyone who’s ever viewed Ali’s refusal to fight in the Vietnam War as less than an act of activism is mistaken. At a time when most of the country favored the war, the athlete risked it all — his career, his money, his reputation and more — because he stood firm in his belief that a black person should not fight for a country that denied them basic rights.
“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong... they never called me n****r, they never lynched me,” he famously said when he denounced the war. After being arrested in 1967 for dodging the draft, Ali spent four years fighting in court. Even when his boxing licenses were taken away, or he was given chances to apologize and join the military to perform for the troops, he stood firm in his conviction. He was eventually able to fight again in 1971.
3. His philanthropic endeavors reached far and wide.
Ali was constantly fighting to make the world a better place. After being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, he created the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona. The center helps to raise awareness and funds for the disease that affects up to 10 million people worldwide. He’s also generously supported the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Special Olympics.
His work didn’t stop at home, however. He went on a “goodwill tour” to make an impact abroad. It included delivering $1.2 million in medical aid to Cuba and delivering food and supplies to children in Mexico and various African countries.
4. He helped negotiate the release of 15 hostages in Iraq.
Six years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Ali travel to Iraq on a “goodwill tour” to free 15 hostages that Saddam Hussein held captive after his invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Hussein was using the prisoners as “human shields” to deter attacks from the United States.
Despite former President George H.W. Bush’s disapproval, Ali met with the Iraqi dictator. He waited more than a week before he made headway with Hussein, but was able to secure all 15 hostages and bring them home.
Without a doubt, Ali’s phenomenal athleticism and activism solidified his place in history as “The Greatest.”