June 6, 2016
On June 3, 2016, arguably one of the greatest athletes in U.S. history, Muhammad Ali, died from complications from Parkinson’s disease at age 74.
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky to Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. and Odessa O’Grady Clay on January 17, 1942. At the age of 12, he discovered his talent for boxing after asking a friend to teach him how to fight a school bully. He went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves Tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class and many more tournaments throughout his high school career. He later graduated from Central High School in 1958. He immediately began his professional boxing career at age 18. In just two years, he won the Light Heavyweight Gold Medal for the U.S. Olympics boxing team in 1960. After his Olympics victory, Ali became a worldwide hero.
In 1964, he decided to join the black Muslim group the Nation of Islam. Initially, he changed his name to “Cassius X” before settling on the name Muhammad Ali. He became an outspoken critic of U.S. policies during the 1960s and 70s and spoke out against the Vietnam War. When he was drafted into the military in 1967, he refused to serve, stating that it violated his religion as a practicing Muslim minister with religious beliefs that prevented him from fighting. Upon refusing to fight in the military, he was suspended from boxing for about three years. However, he made an enormous boxing comeback in 1970, with many legendary fights against boxers such as Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton to name a few. In 1981, he fought his final match and retired soon after. During this time, he focused primarily on philanthropy.
In 1984, Ali announced that he had Parkinson’s disease. A few years after retirement on November 19, 1986, he married his childhood friend, Yolanda (Lonnie) Williams. The couple had one son together, Asaad Amin. His other children include: Laila Ali, Rasheda Ali, Hana Ali, Maryum Ali, Jamillah Ali, Khaliah Ali, Muhammad Ali Jr., and Miya Ali from previous relationships. His daughter, Laila Ali followed in her father’s footsteps and became a professional boxer.
During his retirement, he became more involved in social organizations and championed their causes. He supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among other organizations. In 1998, he was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace as a result of his work in developing nations. In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. In 2005, he opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He wanted the center to be a place to inspire people and to encourage unity and respect for one another. He also received the President’s Award from the NAACP for his public service efforts in 2009.
Commonly referred to as one of the greatest boxers of all time, Ali’s persona as a an American legend continued to grow even as his physical state weakened. He will be celebrated not only for his extraordinary athletic skills and abilities, but also for his willingness to speak out against injustice towards African Americans during the 1960s and 70s, and his courage to challenge America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Muhammad Ali’s funeral and Jenazah (Muslim funeral prayer service) will be open to the public. The Jenazah will take place at 12:00 p.m. on June 9, 2016 at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky.
The speakers will include: Bill Clinton, Bryant Gumble, Rabbi Michael Lerner, wife Lonnie Ali, daughter Maryum Ali, Senator Orrin Hatch and Billy Crystal.
Wendy Thompson, Editor-in-Chief contributed to this article.