Conversion to Islam and Suspension
Despite all of his bravado and personal triumphs, Ali was going through some spiritual searching. In 1964, he joined the Nation of Islam; a Black Muslim group. He changed his name to Cassius X at first before finally changing it to Muhammad Ali. In the 1970s, he converted to orthodox Islam.
Ali did not only fight against opponents in the ring, he had bigger and more powerful adversaries. In 1967, he was drafted into the U.S army for the War in Vietnam. He refused to serve, basing his decision on religious grounds. He was charged with felony and immediately stripped of his boxing license and titles.
The U.S department of justice then sued Ali and he was denied a conscientious objector status. He was found guilty of violating Selective Service laws and was then sentenced to 5 years in prison. However, he remained free as he appealed the decision. He was banned from competing professionally, consequently missing 3 years of his prime as a boxer. In June 1971, Ali’s appeal was successful as the U.S Supreme Court overturned the conviction.
Prior to the Supreme Court overturning the decision, Ali returned to the ring in 1970 with a win over Jerry Quarry. But it was in 1971 that Ali fought in one the most memorable fights in history. His fight with Joe Frazier, dubbed The Fight of the Century, was one of the gruelling fights he had encountered. Going toe-to-toe with Frazier for 14 rounds, Ali got caught with a vicious left hook from Frazier. Although he quickly recovered, the victory was handed to Frazier. Effectively handing Ali his first defeat after 31 victories.His second loss was also not far away as he was defeated by Ken Norton. Ali did however win a 1974 replay against Joe Frazier.
That was not the last of Ali’s epic battles as he took on another memorable bout, this time against the then heavyweight champion of the world, George Foreman. For once, Ali was seen as the underdog against the younger and massive Foreman but he sure did silence his critics. Dubbed as the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the fight was held in Zaire Kinshasa. Ali lured Foreman into throwing number of punches into him, it was a deliberate tactic to weaken his opponent which he called “rope-a-dope”. As Foreman tired from throwing punches, Ali capitalized and knocked him down in the 8th round. He reclaimed the world heavyweight title as a result.
Ali and Joe Frazier embarked on their third and final match in Quezon City, Philippines in 1975. The match, billed the “Thrilla in Manila”, was a grueling encounter as both fighters went toe-to-toe delivering lethal punches for 14 rounds. However after the 14th round, Frazier’s trainer threw in the towel effectively giving Ali the victory.
In 1978 Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks however he won it back in a replay making him the first man to win the title in 3 separate occasions. After a brief retirement, Ali returned to the ring against Larry Holmes put was over-powered by the younger Holmes and he lost the fight. In 1981 he lost another fight to Trevor Berbick which happened to be his last ever fight, as the legend retired from the sport.
Philanthropy and Parkinson’s Diagnosis
After his retirement, Ali engaged in a lot of philanthropy. In 1984, he announced that he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative neurological condition. He took part in raising funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Centre in phoenix Arizona. The Make-a-wish foundation and the Special Olympics were amongst the numerous foundations that he supported. In the summer of 1996, Ali lit the Olympic cauldron at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta in one of the iconic moments in the event’s history.
In 1998 he was chosen by the United Nations to be an ambassador of peace for his impressive work and philanthropy in developing countries.
In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by U.S president George Bush. That same year he opened the Muhammad Ali centre in Louisville Kentucky.
Despite deteriorating health conditions, Ali was active in his social life. He was present in the inauguration of the first African-American president, Barack Obama, in 2009. He was then given the president’s award from NAACP for his efforts to public service.
Death and Legacy
Ali’s health started to deteriorate quickly as he was admitted in 2015 for a severe urinary tract infection. In 2016, he was hospitalized for a reported respiratory problem. Later that month, on June 3rd, he passed away in a Phoenix Arizona Facility.
Ali was survived by his fourth wife, Yolanda and many other children which he had in his previous marriages. His daughter, Laila, followed in her father’s footsteps to become a champion boxer.
According to a Family spokesman, Ali planned for his funeral years prior to his death. He requested that he wanted to be “inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that want to pay their respects to me.” Part of the three day event was an “I Am Ali” public arts Festival, educational and entertainment offerings sponsored by the city, an Islamic prayer and funeral procession and a memorial service.
Prior to his memorial service, a funeral procession travelled through some of his historic landmarks such as his childhood home, his first gym and many other special places. Tens of thousands of his fans gathered to pay their respects and chant his name.
Many dignitaries were present at his funeral including leaders of different faiths and ex-U.S president Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton said “I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, the expectations of others, positive, negative or otherwise would strip from him the power to write his own story.”
Ali was laid to rest at the Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville.
Indeed Ali was a hero and a legend in every sense of the word. He bridged gaps people never thought of closing and taught people how to be tolerant and receptive of others regardless of their race or colour.
Rest in Peace Ali, May Allah SWT grant you Jannah. Ameen.