Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in 1942, officially changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964 (US Islam, 2012). Ali is well known for his victories in the boxing ring as a World Heavyweight Champion, winning a Golden Gloves championship in 1959; in 1960, he became an Olympic gold medalist (Total Pro Sports, 2012). However, his societal contributions go well beyond the boxing ring. Ali’s charisma made him entertaining to watch, and he had no problem celebrating his athletic ability, often referring to himself as “the greatest” (Muhammad Ali Center, 2012). However, his overly confident image didn’t reflect all of his personality. During the same time that Ali was rising to fame for his stellar boxing ability, he was also on a search for spiritual fulfillment and balance.
Originally named Cassius Clay, he began to refer himself as Cassius X before selecting the name Muhammad Ali. This was only the beginning of the impact that Ali would make outside of the boxing ring (Marqusee, 1999). In 1966, he refused to fulfill his military service obligations after being drafted. He explained that as a practicing Muslim minister, his religious beliefs prevented him from being a soldier in the Vietnam War (Nixon, 2009). The following year, Ali prioritized his religious beliefs above his prominent boxing career when the U.S. Department of Justice pursued a case against the boxer, denying his request to be a conscientious objector (Total Pro Sports, 2012). Muhammad Ali was found guilty of refusing to be sworn into the military, but was able to clear his name after a long battle with the court system. However, his boxing career suffered after the case. The boxing association stripped Ali of his title, and he was suspended from boxing for three and a half years (Total Pro Sports, 2012).
These notable instances indicate that even as a young man, Muhammad Ali exhibited unwavering devotion to his principles (US Islam, 2012). This proved to be an inspiration to many of the people Ali worked with closely, and is still evident in the retired athlete’s philanthropic efforts. The decisions that Muhammad Ali made, both in joining the Nation of Islam in a country that is predominately Christian, and refusing to fight in a war that went against his religious principles, helped to set the stage for many of the other accomplishments he would witness outside of being an athlete (Gilliam, 1980).
In 1970, Ali won his first fight after his suspension from boxing by knocking out Jerry Quarry in an Atlanta boxing match (Total Pro Sports, 2012). The year after, Muhammad Ali took on another popular boxer, Joe Frazier—their match has often been called the Fight of the Century. The two went 15 rounds and Frazier took Ali down temporarily; referees determined that Frazier won the fight. But in a 1974 rematch, Ali defeated Frazier. The famed “Rumble in the Jungle” also took place in 1974, where Ali fought a younger, seemingly more powerful opponent, George Foreman (Marqusee, 1999). Even in his fighting strategy and refusal to accept defeat, Ali further exemplified his belief that life is comprised of difficult challenges—which are all possible to overcome (Muhammad Ali Center, 2012). Those who were skeptical of Ali’s abilities due to his age were squelched when he defeated Foreman, and once again became the Heavyweight Champion of the World (Total Pro Sports, 2012).
After fighting for a few more years, Muhammad Ali announced that he would retire from boxing the day after losing his heavyweight title to Trevor Berbick in 1981. After this, Ali began devoting the majority of his time to philanthropic efforts. His devotion to bettering the lives of others is also in keeping with the Islamic principle of doing good deeds (US Islam, 2012).
Ali announced that he has Parkinson’s disease in 1984, and has raised funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona for years. The disease has affected the former boxer’s motor skills, particularly his ability to speak, but this has not hindered him from providing relief for others. A number of the boxer’s philanthropic work has been anonymous. Ali has also been a long-time supporter of the Special Olympics and the Make a Wish Foundation. These organizations have the very special mission of supporting those with disabilities and assisting terminally ill children in receiving necessary medical treatment, even when their families can’t afford hospital stays or extensive testing. These charities focus on giving those who are disadvantaged a chance to achieve their life’s aspirations. Given all that Ali has accomplished in his life, working in philanthropy to improve society’s view on public service indicates the former boxer’s ultimate aspiration for all of humanity to exist peacefully and in harmony (Reed, 2004, pp.109).
Muhammad Ali has also traveled to a number of countries for charitable purposes. His trips to Morocco and Mexico have benefited many in need. Ali was also selected to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace because of his philanthropic work (Reed, 2004, pp.107). For instance, in 1990, before the Gulf War, Muhammad Ali met with Saddam Hussein in Iraq and was able to successfully negotiate the release of 15 hostages (Gilliam, 1980). Seven years later, Ali asked the U.S. government to help Rwandan refugees and for Americans to give funds to charities that were involved in refugee rescue efforts in Rwanda. Author Amir Saeed asserts in his academic article Worthy of All Praises: Muhammad Ali and the Politics of Identity that Ali has long been a key figure for a number of non-white communities in the Muslim and South Asian Diaspora (Saeed, 2011, pp. 123-129). Even in Muhammad Ali’s boxing career, he become an activist against racism and used his assertive nature to instill pride in the Black American community as well. Although many blacks in the U.S. are not Musllim, Ali’s support for racial equality and civil rights has gained him the support of many people of color in the United States (Waters, 2008). Muhammad Ali’s religion is also respected by many people in Western culture, so much so that he has been called on several times by the White House so that Americans can gain approval and be seen as non-threatening in the Muslim world (US Islam, 2012).
Ali’s cooperation with government officials and work to improve certain regulations resulted in his 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. The same year, he opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. The multicultural center and museum dedicated to the boxer showcases some of the athlete’s most notable accomplishments in the boxing ring, but also brings attention to the ways that Ali has improved Christian/Muslim relations, aided impoverished communities, and made the world better by offering his resources to provide food and clothing for those who are less fortunate (Muhammad Ali Center, 2012). The Center offers a number of programs designed to assist young people in their educational pursuits, including a scholarship and curriculum-guided field trips (Biography, 2012).
Most recently, Muhammad Ali has been acknowledged by President Barack Obama (Garcia, 2012). The President stated his admiration for the boxer and his work in the release of 15 American hostages from Iraq in 1990, and his journey to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. President Obama also acknowledged Ali’s travels to Afghanistan to help struggling schools as a United Nations Messenger of Peace, and his routine visits to sick children and children with disabilities around the world to inspire and encourage them (Garcia, 2012).
Muhammad Ali has been known as one of the world’s most charitable athletes for more than 50 years now (Biography, 2012). His work in the community and the world is just as notable as his stellar boxing record. His influence in the athletic and nonprofit world continues to make a positive impact on society.