If I thought going to war would bring freedom and equality to twenty-two million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me. I’d join tomorrow. But I either have to obey the laws of the land or the laws of Allah. I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. We’ve been in jail for four hundred years.
The ESPN network, choosing its top athletes of the 20th Century, placed Muhammad Ali at number 3. The fighter was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky. Taught to box at age 12, he won 100 of 108 amateur fights and several national titles. At age 18 he added a gold medal from the 1960 Olympics. Back home in Kentucky, however, when a restaurant refused to serve him because of his race, Clay took the Olympic medal from around his neck and threw it into the Ohio River.
Turning professional, the handsome and skillful Clay brought style and verbal wit to boxing. Both quick and powerful, he could "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee." In his 20th match, fighting as the underdog, he became the world heavyweight champion. A surprised nation was further shocked the next morning when Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and taken a Muslim name, Muhammad Ali.
By March 1967, his record stood at 29-0. One month later, he refused induction into the US Army during the Vietnam War, claiming conscientious objector status. "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong," he said, adding, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger." Condemned as unpatriotic and cowardly, Ali was stripped of his title and his boxing license. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to five years in prison. Released on appeal, he waited three years for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the verdict.
Despite these years of inactivity, Ali ended his professional career with a record of 56 wins and 5 losses. Revered instead of hated, he became the first boxer to win—and hold--the heavyweight championship three times (1964-67, 1974-78 and 1978-79). But he stayed too long in the ring and lost three of his last four fights before retiring in 1981. Shortly after that, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.
Two decades later, Ali has been slowed by the disease but not defeated. Three decades after America reviled him for his religious and political beliefs, he was asked to light the Olympic Torch at the opening of the 1996 Atlanta games. In October 2003, the editor of Esquire magazine wrote that "he, like only a very few Americans, has existed for nearly his entire life at that rare nexus of celebrity, accomplishment, and infamy that makes one an American icon."