Three-time world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali is one of the most charismatic and outspoken sports figure in the history of the world. He is much more than a champion boxer but a towering figure who came to symbolize racial pride, political conscience, triumph, religious conviction, and audacity. His influence extended far outside the ring, making him one of the world’s most recognizable features. His name is will ring a bell, even to an average non-American born after his time and has no interest in sports.
Here are some of the ways Muhammad Ali, born as Cassius Clay, made an amazing impact on pop culture:
He was a living quote generator
Throughout his career and certainly after his fighting days ended, Muhammad Ali became renowned for his penchant for saying memorable quotes as he was for his prowess in the boxing ring. Whether or not he was actually a bad man, he wanted everyone, especially his opponent, to believe it. He also made sure that everyone knew who was the greatest of all time – which was him.
There was no one in the history of the world, or sports otherwise, who talked like Ali. When he promoted his own fight against George Foreman in 1974 – the Rumble in the Jungle – he said these braggy words:
“I’m bad. I’ve been chopping trees. I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator…I tussled with a whale. I done handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail. That’s bad.”
“Only last week, I murdered a rock. Injured a stone. Hospitalized a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick. Bad.”
“Fast, fast, fast! Last night I cut the light off my bedroom, hit the switch and was in bed before the room was dark. Fast.”
The good thing about Ali is that he’s not all talk – he backs it up. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. But because of his brash attitude and bravado, he was notoriously hated by boxing fans. He wasn’t really seen as a hero or a good guy in many of his early fights. After his first win against heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, he moved over to a TV camera and said, “I’m the greatest fighter who ever lived! I’m so great I don’t have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old.” Raising his arms up, he continued, “I’m the king of the world! I’m pretty! I’m a bad man, I shook up the world!”
His use of animal metaphors was legendary. Before the fight, he trash-talked Sonny Liston as a “big ugly bear” that he was going to “donate to the zoo.” When he was about to fight Liston, he told the rest of the world that he was going to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”
Kids today float like butterflies and sting like bees without even knowing where or whom that idea came from.
He worked his way up to the top to fight racial discrimination
Cassius Clay is from Louisville, Kentucky, which was considered as a place exhibiting a more polite racism in his time. However, discrimination was still prevalent anywhere, and it has been ingrained in Cassius as the normal way of life. As far as the laws and customs of his state and the United States was concerned, the Clays were black, and that racial designation determined where they would live, shop, work, eat, send their kids to school, marry, and how they will be treated once they broke the law. He was accustomed to being off limits to some parks and amusement centers as a child, but when his father Cash told him and his brothers that only money would give a black man a shot at equality – his worldview changed. He worked to get more money to be respected. And the way that he found to do just that is boxing.
At the young age of 12, he trained in boxing, wanting to be a big celebrity and be world famous, so he can rebel and be different from the rest. He said, “I wanted to be free. I wanted to say what I wanna say, go where I wanna go, do what I wanna do.” And that was a luxury for men of color like him. He fought, achieved notoriety, and proved that he wasn’t just a braggart, until his name is known throughout the world.
Throughout his life, he said and did what he believed in without fear of consequence. He converted to Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. He spoke out against the government’s policies. He constantly spoke against racism, and did what he wanted as a free black man unafraid of the consequences, with no regard to what society may say or think against him. He didn’t overcome racial discrimination – he called it out boldly and courageously.
He was a great self-promoter
Muhammad Ali was the greatest self-promoter the pugilistic world has ever seen. He was young, brave and dedicated enough to destroy the bully who terrorized the countryside. He even got the Beatles to publicize his fight against Liston. He made noise for himself, so people would pay attention.
And in a fight against George Foreman, Ali left the world with another set of quotable quotes, as mentioned above. He knows how to get people’s attention, even if people would hate his attitude in the process. Negative publicity is still publicity.
He was the origin of the phantom punch that shook the world
In 1965, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston’s rematch fight became the stuff of legends. People around the world tuned in via satellite to watch the match, fought in front of the smallest crowd in heavyweight championship fight history. The fight lasted less than a full round – Ali knocked out Liston at the 1:44 mark.
This result was very shocking, not only because Liston was favored in the match, but mostly because hardly anybody saw the punch that knocked Liston down. The punch was eventually coined as the “phantom punch,” and has been the subject of speculation and controversy for decades.
Liston had just thrown a jab using his left arm, and after leaning forward, received a right hook from Ali right to the skull. He then sunk to the canvas. As he was down, Ali moved closer, taunting and demanding him to get back up. Eventually, Liston rose from the mat, but the referee broke the two boxers up because he had been down for more than 10 seconds.
There’s a photo
that captures the legendary moment, and this photo is one of the most iconic photo in boxing history. It captured all the fire and passion that made Ali a phenomenon.
He was one of the most influential black men who spoke out against violence and war
When Ali decided to speak out against violence and the Vietnam War, he transitioned from being a sports villain to one of the most polarizing and social figures in history. He refused to participate in the Vietnam War in 1967, and it nearly cost him everything. The US government turned on him when he refused to be inducted to the US Army – his passport was revoked, his boxing license was stripped in every state, and his title was even taken away. He had to fight to remain free and stay out of jail.
This decision cost him favor with many Americans and his supporters too. Ali became like a spokesman for the anti-war cause – a pronounced anti-white man cause perpetuated at the time by the Nation of Islam. People were accusing the religious group of indoctrinating Ali to their cause to use him as a recruitment tool.
When he stood against war, it was a very difficult time in the social and political history of the United States. Ali became a light for both sides of the cause.
He was the master of mind games
Muhammad Ali was an obnoxious opponent and a master of mind games (and apparently, petty trash talk). He disrespected Liston for months – showing up to surprise him at airports, waiting for him in casinos, and even waking him from bed – just to tell him, “You’re a chump. Big, ugly bear! I’ll whup you right now.” He labeled Liston as an ugly bear and a dumb animal. He said it so many times that everyone, possibly even Ali himself, got tired of hearing it. He was playing mind games and built up the psychological warfare until the day of the fight, when he put on his biggest show of all.
On a pre-fight weigh-in against Liston, he wore a blue denim jacket with the words “Bear Huntin’” embroidered across the shoulders. He didn’t stop calling his opponent “chump,” and continued threatening him with words. Suddenly, almost everyone hated him.
He’s a hip-hop pioneer
Muhammad Ali’s greatest influence in music is poured out to hip-hop. He didn’t just invent rhyming lines, but his brash swagger and boldness is hip-hop itself. Ali is a natural orator and his quotes can easily become lyrics to rap songs. Case in point: “I’m so mean, I make medicine sick,” “His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see,” “It will be a killer and a chiller and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila.”
His boasts, his funky delivery, comical trash talk and endless quotes offered the cornerstone in the early development of hip-hop music. He became the inspiration of many early rappers. According to LL Cool J, without Muhammad Ali, the term G.O.A.T. will never have been coined, and there will be no “Mama Said Knock You Out.” Up to this day, his poetic bouts of whimsy still sounds fresh.
He was a boxer with a movie-star charisma
Muhammad Ali is known for his natural showmanship and quick wit, so it just made sense for him to have a stint in entertainment. He starred and guest-starred in television shows like “Diff’rent Strokes,” “Vega$,” and “Touched by an Angel.” He is charismatic not just on the ring, so he appeared as himself in movies such as “Body and Soul,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” and “Doin’ Time.”
But the best role he ever had was probably when he starred in his own biopic, “The Greatest” in 1977. Will Smith may have been a fine champ in Michael Mann’s 2001 version of this biopic, but no one can play the role as Ali himself could. He was a natural actor and it was fascinating and touching to see him starring in a film based on his memoir.
He made an Olympic opening ceremony an emotional moment
Throughout his life, Muhammad Ali has showed incredible courage, whether in the ring as a boxer, as a civil individual standing up for his rights, and as a free man defying the US government’s order that he go to Vietnam – but his bravest moment might have been his lighting of the torch at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. He was chosen to light the cauldron at the Atlanta Games, marking the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics. The Olympics committee and organizers kept it a secret that he has been selected to have the honor of lighting the torch.
It wasn’t the actual torch lighting that was emotional – it was his act of standing there before a stadium of millions of TV viewers, wherein the tremors from his Parkinson’s disease were apparent. He was courageous enough to stand there with his left hand shaking, revealing to the world the disease that was attacking his body. He did it with his face still graceful and resilient, making it one of the most emotional moments of any Olympic opening ceremony.