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Some may know him as the People’s Champion, others know him as the Greatest. Born as Cassius Marcellus Ray Jr., Muhammad Ali has been renown as the world’s greatest boxer. He is a prestiged member of both the black community and of the Islamic community. An avid public speaker, His once booming voice is now silenced by Parkinson’s Disease, a disorder in the brain that causes tremors and violent shaking in the body. No matter what can be said about him, there is no one in America who can deny his influence over people. Muhammad Ali was one of the most influential men of the 20th century due to his political stance he made on the war against Vietnam and as a symbol of Black Power, his record as a boxer through his unique style, and through the vast amount of charities he supports such as the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center and Celebrity Fight Night Foundation.
Muhammad Ali ascended from a simple lower-class boy in Louisville, Kentucky, to one of the greatest, if not the best, boxers of all time and one of the biggest faces for multiple civil rights movements. Whether he was speaking on Black Power or Anti-Vietnam, every word he said carried volume throughout America, his influence almost hypnotic (Gorsevski). Muhammad Ali never backed down from what he believed in, he spoke his mind and stood his ground, regardless of the consequences. When war with Vietnam erupted, Ali had just won his bout with the current heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston, and was crowned the new champion. The public eye expected movie stars and sport stars like Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis to stand on the front lines and defend our country from our new Vietnamese enemies. (Woods) Ali, however, chose otherwise. He refused to go to Vietnam and invade their country. When asked by reporters why he refused to go, his response was “I ain’t got nothing against those Viet-Congs”, which was eventually twisted into the famous saying “Ain’t no Vietcong ever called me Nigger.”. Ali was widely criticized, praised, and questioned for his decision. His former physician, Ferdie Pacheco, criticized him for his decision, stating that he was being used by the Nation of Islam. “He could have gone and done like Joe Louis–go over and fight a couple exhibition bouts, then come home… The Muslims used him. When it came to politics, Ali had zero politics. He didn’t think that much about anything. What happened was sheer serendipity.” (Woods). As a result of his decision, he was stripped of his heavyweight belt, banned from major league boxing and sentenced to five years in prison. Ali’s sentence was rightfully repealed in June of 1970 and he was allowed to return to boxing. where he would eventually claim his rightful spot on the throne from George Foreman.
Ali’s reasons struggles for civil rights justice extend further than his protest on Vietnam as he fought for black equality with his fights in the ring. After winning his fight against Sonny Liston, Ali made his conversion to the Nation of Islam public. He did not believe that forced segregation between whites and blacks was a viable solution to the oppressions of African-Americans. In 1965, his fight with Floyd Patterson extended beyond the ring, as they debated on what was the correct way to handle the Civil Rights movement. Patterson believed that the Nation of Islam was nothing more than a black version of the Ku Klux Klan. In response to this, Ali, in his usual fashion of smack talk before a fight, wrote a rap about Patterson, claiming that he forced his way into a white neighborhood and that Patterson should begin “acting black” (Pierre). Ali stood tall as a pillar of strength for the black community. Living, breathing proof that the black community can function just as well as the white community, that the black community can survive on it’s own, without the interference of a white oppressor, and that the black community will stand as equals to their white counterparts. Muhammad Ali managed to advance civil rights while, at the same time, advancing the world of boxing with his unique style and reforms.
The Greatest, The People’s Champion and The Louisville Lip, all nicknames that Muhammad Ali earned throughout his heavyweight boxing career. In boxing, “textbook style” is the highest level of boxing technique, and Ali looked like he was cut straight out of the book (Slack). He had everything a good heavyweight boxer needed: reach, footwork, power and speed. Ali would have been an amazing boxer if he chose to fight with a normal heavyweight style, but his strange style is what made Ali the greatest boxer. Ali broke the rules with his style, leaving his hands dangling on the side and baiting punches with his head. “ Instead of using his arms to block he leaned back to avoid punches. He threw a variety of looping punches from ridiculous angles.” (Smith). Ali used his lean to create a combo with his inside slip and vicious counterpunch that he called “The Anchor Punch”. (Slack). By leaning back with his face as bait, he forced his opponent to overcommit to their punches, leaving their weak spots exposed and ready for Ali to sting. Ali said that his anchor punch was influenced by Jack Johnson, but according to Slack, Johnson never used a punch similar to what Ali did. “You are fighting a person who is taller AND faster than you. When you approach, he gets on his tiptoes, takes two steps back, then lands three power shots to your face during his retreat.” (Smith). Ali’s goal was not to knockout his fighter, he outclassed his opponent, his footwork and stamina unmatched. Ali’s style has been imitated by many other boxers, such as Henry Clark, who have all failed to do perform as well as Ali because there is no boxer who was as resilient as Ali. (Donelson). His resiliency made up for his lack of defense as he endured brutal punch after punch. “His battle with Foreman is proof of this as he took Foreman’s sledgehammer shots” (Donelson). Not only did Ali beat his opponents physically, but he also beat them on a mental level as well. Ali’s heart was unmatched as a boxer. In many of Ali’s fights, he was knocked down only to get back up to win the fight. Even when he was knocked down by Henry Cooper’s famous left hook known as “Henry’s Hammer” knocked him down in the fourth round, Ali got back up and won the fight (Smith). Ali won many of his fights through his skill and through sheer will, one of the reasons why he became a beacon of hope for the black community. Ali would often extend his mind games to the outside of his fights as well. He would create raps insulting his opponents, show up at their training camps, and predict when his opponent would lose; anything he could do to get inside his opponent’s heads. In every fight he did, Ali didn’t just win for himself, every win for him was a win for his beliefs and his people.
Ali transcended the realm of regular athletes. His victories were victories for the people, his triumphs a step forward for his causes. He inspired black people and civil rights everywhere with his defiant and independent attitude as an African-American. “I was determined to be the one nigger that the white man didn’t get” (Ali). Muhammad Ali ushered in a new age of how athletes were perceived to the world; his flashy style inspiring athletes, such as Reggie Jackson, the first Major League Baseball player to wear a mustache since 1914, to express their individuality (Oates). His eccentric footwork known as the “Ali Shuffle” went so far as to influence dance moves in an age where rap and hip-hop were becoming prominent in urban ethnic locations. His unique sense of style and detailed skill at his craft paved the road for other athletes who we love and revere today such as the man many claim was the best basketball player, Michael Jordan. Some may argue that Ali did not have as many breakthroughs that people say that he had when compared to other athletes. But when compared to other black athletes, Ali was the most needed. “Compare the modest, constrained public personae of Joe Louis, Ezzard Charles, Jackie Robinson…the black athlete was given to know that his presence was provisional and not a right…that might be revoked at any time” (Oates). Ali’s vigorous spirit and unique style helped black athletes make strides in their career. Because of Ali, black athletes went from dry and dull characters like Joe Louis to the epic and trend-setting personas like Michael Jordan. Because of Ali, black athletes transformed from reserved and silent figures like Jackie Robinson to vocal and influential activists like Richard Sherman. Without the influence of Muhammad Ali, black athletes would have been doomed to stay in the shadow of white athletes. Ali’s victories are not just limited to the world of sports, as he has helped support many successful charities.
While Muhammad Ali supports a vast amount of charities, each with their own unique causes, the two charities that have gotten the most support from the champion are the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center and Celebrity Fight Night Foundation founded by Jimmy Walker in 1994. The Celebrity Fight Night Foundation raises money for many causes including The Salvation Army, the Solid Rock Foundation, and the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center (Welcome to Celebrity Fight Night). The first event from the foundation. included celebrities who squared up in the boxing ring with enormously sized boxing gloves was loved by the audience, and stayed in the public eye thanks to the help of Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle of the Phoenix Suns and boxing champion Michael Carbajal. The foundation’s second event continued the boxing tradition and did even better thanks to an extraordinary performance from award winning singer Kenny Rogers. The third annual event, however, is what hurled the foundation into it’s prominent status across the nation. After three years, Muhammad Ali finally accepted his invitation to be the featured guest of honor for the event (Welcome to Celebrity Fight Night). During the next eighteen years, the foundation would continue to flourish with Muhammad Ali association with the charity, attracting great artists of different varieties to participate in the events. “Nobody knew after the first Celebrity Fight Night event that raised $100,000 in 1994, that it would become one of the largest grossing charity events in the country raising nearly $95 million throughout the years” (Welcome to Celebrity Fight Night). Because of Muhammad Ali’s influence, the foundation changed from just a regular charity event to one of the most extravagant and successful charities in the United States. The bond between Muhammad Ali and the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation is so strong that in 1997, the Foundation started focusing their fundraising for The Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center, a research center and charity devoted to the treatment of Parkinson’s Disease.
The Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center was founded in 1997 by Muhammad Ali, Dr. Abraham Lieberman, and the founder of Celebrity Fight Night, Jimmy Walker. (Barrow Neurological Institute). The Center is supported by St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute of Phoenix, Arizona. The center is supported solely by donations, mainly from the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation (Welcome to Celebrity Fight Night). While there is currently no cure for Parkinson’s Disease as of now, the center’s world-renown neurologists work tirelessly to help their patients adapt to their new life with Parkinson’s (Barrow Neurological Institute). With thirty exam rooms, a rehabilitation gym and a gait lab,-a lab devoted to studying human motion-the center has made strides of progress for their patients and their preparations for their new incoming patients. “It is estimated that there will be a 30 percent increase of Parkinson’s disease prevalence over the next decade… 1.5 million people suffer from Parkinson’s in the United States” (Barrow Neurological Institute). The success of the both the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center and the Celebrity Fight Night Foundation are both supported by Muhammad Ali. Because of Ali’s generosity, millions of people worldwide will receive help for their disease.
The Greatest, Cassius Cray, Muhammad Ali has proven time and time again what makes him so influential. His activism helped to end a war and advance his race, his boxing victories earned him title belts and radically changed the world’s perception of athletes and his philanthropy saves millions of victims plagued by Parkinson’s Disease from of lifetime of silence and disabilities that he has been forced to face because of his own Parkinson’s Disease. Muhammad Ali is truly The Greatest, both in and out of the ring.
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