Though he used two names, I have always referred to him with just one.
Ali. Or, even better, The Greatest.
To say that he changed how we perceived the athlete in our culture is to move into the ring that he truly fought in. And if one said that he knocked out our perceptions, you would have both used too many sports analogies and missed the mark. Ali moved us onto the track we needed to be on. The dual track of African Americans moving to full civil rights and individual agency for athletes, indeed for all people.
Ali’s career is impressive and well documented so I won’t go into it in depth here, but the defeat of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman solidified an impressive career into the greatest career. Twice crowned Heavyweight Champion, he invented new strategies, taunted opponents in the ring, and trash-talked rivals outside the ring. He became a star, spending time with presidents, Beatles. He called black opponents who didn’t use his new name, Ali, Uncle Tom. The WBA stripped him of his title for joining the Nation Of Islam. When his draft status changed to Eligible for Combat in Vietnam, he stated that he would refuse to serve: “I ain’t got nothing against no Viet Cong; no Viet Cong never called me nigger.”
He refused to be someone else’s boy.
For an athlete at that time to take control of his life was unheard of; most boxers let their manager do the talking, let their manager run their life. Not Ali. He seemed incapable of letting others run his life. And through his constant and continuous pushing away of our perceptions of what a black man and black athlete was supposed to be, he redefined himself on his own terms, forced a society that was more comfortable with black men doing its bidding to realize that the black men might not want that role. That, indeed, that black America would fight, in the ring or out, fair or foul, to be its own champion.
Mohammed Ali died June 3, 2016.