“I never talk about boxing. It just served its purpose. I was only about eleven or twelve years old when I said ‘I’m going to get famous so I can help my people,’” said Muhammad Ali in 1988 during an interview with the New York Times.
Muhammad did both in his lifetime: become famous and help people. His fame stemmed from boxing, but he was also a member of the Black Panthers and an activist in the civil rights movement.
Ali had a total of 61 fights in his career. In 37 of his 56 winning fights, he knocked out his opponent. He only lost five times in his boxing career, which started in 1960 and ended 21 years later.
Muhammad Ali developed Parkinson’s disease, a gradual tremor that typically starts in the hands and eventually can cause the entire body to shake involuntarily. Other symptoms include stiffening of the body’s muscles and the slowing down of its movement. His doctors theorized that the disease was Pugilistic Parkinsonism, induced by the head trauma Ali had suffered through his boxing career.
Muhammad Ali didn’t give up boxing until 1981, four years longer than Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, his former doctor, recommended. Dr. Pacheco wanted Ali to stop boxing when his reflexes starting to slow down in 1977 due to the disease.
Ali lost his last fight. He lost to Trevor Berbick, “a fighter who was past his prime.” Ali in his prime would have destroyed Berbick if it weren’t for the neurological damage that had taken place for over a year. Many argued that he should not have been allowed into the ring. But Ali wanted to fight.
A few years later, Dr. Pacheco, who was also a boxing commentator for NBC-TV, told the Boston Globe why he thought Muhammad didn’t quit boxing in 1977.
“The most virulent infection in the human race is the standing ovation. Once you’ve seen that, you can’t get off the stage. Once you feel that recognition, the roar of 500,000 people, you just don’t want to give that up,” he said.
In 1988, Ali told the New York Times he had Parkinson’s. This was the year many people called Muhammad Ali human again. Before, he was superman— no matter how many blows or losses he took, he always came back and became the champion once again. Even if it wasn’t while he was boxing.
Each fight Ali fought in the ring was a political standoff; He was a black man in the ring with a white man in the sixties and he usually won. In the media, Ali often commented on racism and the Vietnam War.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights,” commented Ali in 1966 after evading the draft.
Ali was a very active supporter of the Black Panthers, an organization that taught minority groups self-defense against the U.S government, and advocated socialism. The co-founder of the organization was politically inspired by speeches Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali had given.
To the Black Panthers Ali was a legend. A hero, according to Mumia Abu-Jamal, a one-time Black Panther and political prisoner.
Ali’s messages about black pride and black resistance gave a voice to black people all across the nation; his actions in and out of the ring changed history. He will live on in the hearts of many as the greatest.