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Muhammad Ali spent his life not counting the days, but making them count.
On February 25, 1964, a little-known 22-year-old boxer named Cassius Clay entered the ring in Miami Beach to face Sonny Liston, the reigning heavyweight-boxing champion. Clay was a fast-talking, brash young man. No one believed he stood a chance. Yet Clay gracefully dodged Liston's blow after blow until the larger man gave up in Round 7.
Clay rushed to the ropes declaring, "I am the champion of the world."
Cassius Clay was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. Like many young black men growing up the US's racially segregated south, Clay had few options. He turned to sports, becoming an amateur boxer by the age of 12. Even then, he was determined to excel in a world stacked against him.
Six years later, in 1960, Clay won a Gold Medal for the United States at the Rome Olympics. But back at home, he and his friends were refused a seat in a "whites-only" restaurant. He later claimed to have thrown his gold medal into the Ohio River out of anger at white America.
Following his 1964 win against Liston, Clay converted to Islam and joined the Black Muslim movement led by Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X. That's when he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, declaring that Clay was a “slave name."
In 1966, Ali was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Citing religious reasons, he refused to be inducted. He felt that African-Americans should not fight a war of aggression for a government that denied them basic Civil Rights.
When warned that he could be jailed for refusing induction, Ali responded that black people in the United States had "been in jail for 400 years." His brazen personality and provocative statements caught the attention of the US’s principal law enforcement agency: the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
On April 28, 1967, Ali was charged with draft evasion, stripped of his titles as well as his license to box. He was just 25. Ali took this fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971. But by then, he’d lost four of the best years of his boxing career.
He attempted a comeback that same year, but was brutally defeated by Joe Frazier. It was the first loss of Ali's professional career. Many believed the rebellious heavyweight was finished.
However, Ali was a fighter in more ways than one. He spent the next three years training and in January 1975, earned a match against the new World Champion, George Foreman. Organized by boxing promoter Don King and nicknamed "The Rumble in the Jungle," the event took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
Foreman was seven years younger and clearly stronger than Ali. What’s more, he had never lost a fight. Ali knew he could not out-punch the younger man. So, he invented a new strategy, which he later named "rope-a-dope." Protecting his head, he let Foreman deliver hundreds of furious blows to his arms and body while taunting him with such jibes as, "Is that all you got, George?" Foreman kept trying to knock Ali out, but gradually he became too exhausted to go on. In Round 8, Foreman collapsed on the mat, defeated.
Against the odds, Ali reclaimed the title his government had taken from him, as Africa – and the world – cheered. People around the globe rallied around the underdog Ali. His outspoken politics and struggle to rise above the odds had made him a hero to people of color everywhere. His actions as a conscientious objector who refused to support the war in Vietnam made him an icon for the young counterculture generation.
When Ali retired from the ring in 1981 at age 39, he devoted himself to charitable work and, ironically, acted on behalf of the US on several diplomatic missions to the Middle East and Africa. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome, thought to be caused by boxing-related brain injuries. In 1998, he began working with actor Michael J Fox to raise awareness and funds for Parkinson's disease.
Muhammad Ali died in June 2016. A true citizen of the world, he was mourned globally. Ali was a model of racial pride for African Americans. He was an example for all of living by your beliefs even if it means jeopardizing your career. He broke racial barriers as a conscientious objector of an unjust war, becoming an icon for all who resisted. And he helped to convince the world to care about Parkinson’s, a disease that still has no cure.
Ali, indeed, spent his life not counting the days, but making them count. That’s why he’s a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
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