Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. better known has Muhammad Ali AKA “The Greatest” was perhaps the most famous athlete of his time and one of the biggest icons of all time. By the time he became the world heavyweight champion, he was not the first African American to acquire the crown. And even as brash, and outspoken he was, he was not even the most arrogant of African American Champions. He was preceded by 2 other illustrious icons Joe Louis AKA “The Brown Bomber” who was much more humble than Ali ever was and Jake Johnson who was even more outspoken than Ali. So what made him so unique from all the other boxers who came before him, black or White?
Besides winning an Olympic gold medal, Ali was virtually an unknown. However, thanks to his silver tongue and charisma, he did not remain unknown for long. Insulting his opponents before fights, bragging about his great skill, and predicting what round he would knock his opponent out in set he apart from any boxer of his time. Never before was an unknown so outspoken but yet still manage to captivate the sports world as well.
In addition, Ali was just as outspoken out of the squared circle as well. He openly spoke against the Vietnam War and against racism as well. World famous athlete or not, that was a daring move for a black athlete in the 1960s which was considered the heart of the civil rights movement. Ali was arrogant and often impetuous, perhaps not disciplined enough to be considered the ideal candidate to practice Islam. Perhaps that is the main reason that his conversion shocked the world. True Lewis Alcindor did the same thing when he converted, later become Kareem Abdul Jabbar but he was nowhere near as outspoken as Ali and his conversion did not send the same shockwaves through the sports world as Ali’s did.
Like many African Americans of his era, he was tired of being treated as a second class citizen. As much as Ali admired and respected former champ Joe Louis, Ali refused to be as soft spoken and passive as Louis was. Ali knew of the Nation of Islam and became a close friend of civil rights leader Malcolm X. He loved seeing men that stood up to society and demanded to be treated equally. He became swayed by the teachings of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and supported Muhammad’s idea of not integrating whites with blacks. Furthermore he believed as the Nation of Islam believed that the white man was the devil and couldn’t be trusted. These remarks ultimately gave him negative attention which resulted in many white boxing fans coming to his fights, not only to see him, but in the hopes of seeing him loose. Rather than be discouraged Ali thrived on the attention, which only anger his critics more. Aside from stripping him of the title and banning him from boxing for 5 years because he refused to register for the draft, there was nothing the public could do to keep him in check.
Islam would remain his religion but also become his lifestyle as well. He successfully used the teachings he learned from Islam to fight racism, educate himself about other cultures, promote the teachings of Islam, recruit people to Islam, and even change his diet and way of thinking. Islam did not simply play a role in his life, it became his life. Not matter what criticism he faced or the Nation of Islam faced, he remained loyal to the organization and more importantly to the religion itself. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay but the two alter egos had many differences. Ali was just as arrogant as Clay but more mature and knowledgeable. Islam had changed him and made him a better and wiser man. Without Islam, he would not be the Muhammad Ali that we have grown to admire and adore even to this day.