Muhammad Ali: The Influences of an American Icon

Muhammad Ali was one of the most influential figures in American history. From helping progress the end of racism and war, to advancing world peace and improving the entertainment industry, Ali had a unique impact that targeted some of America’s largest issues. While boxing was his signature trademark, the impact of his passion for civil rights was definitely what allowed him to stand out and be memorialized for the years to come. He was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, by the name Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. Growing up in the South, where segregation was undeniably significant, he obviously encountered lots of racism and discrimination. On April 28, 1967, Ali refused to be inducted into the U.S Army for the Vietnam war which, of course, activated a number of problems he had to face. Throughout his life, Muhammad Ali supported numerous charities, participated in countless events, and contributed to various causes.

Boxing is a sport with a complicated history, it began when white slave owners would force slaves to fight to the death, for their entertainment. Later, when slavery was abolished, the sport continued, desegregated, and white boxing promoters made huge profits off of the athletes. Ali began boxing at the age of twelve, when a white police officer named Joe Martin began giving him lessons after recognizing his talent. In the 1950s, Black Americans, although free from enslavement, were not completely liberated. Boxing was one sport that allowed them to compete equally with whites and exhibit superiority in strength, as well as earn a rightful earning. Muhammad Ali became the unofficial spokesperson for millions of blacks around the world. In the words of activist Bob Moses, ‘Muhammad Ali galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.” After refusing to be drafted for the war and becoming closely tied to many civil rights activists, Ali became the most visible Black Power activist of his generation. He recognized that black people in America were being treated horribly by the same white people that were trying to force them to fight. Also, these Black men were being put in the front lines of war, sacrificing their own lives, without being given recognition, and the heroes who actually managed to make it back, were still facing racism in their own country. He said, ‘Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 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?’ Even though at first Ali and King didn’t get along, they eventually became good friends after Ali declined being drafted for the war. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr supported Ali on his choice and displayed his support telling people they “certainly have to admire his courage.’ Ali persuaded the great Martin Luther King to speak out against the Vietnam war and support his stance regarding the racist roots of war. Muhammad Ali publicly supported his housing initiative in Ali’s hometown. With Muhammad Ali standing up for what he believed in, a movement began within the African American community in the 1960s. Muhammad Ali went to college campuses, after he was banned from boxing, and spoke to the students to speak up and fight for what they believe in. Many black athletes such as Olympic sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, thought of Muhammad Ali as the epitome of athletic achievement, not just because he was an incredible boxer, but also because of the huge difference he made in America as a Black Muslim man. Another important way Ali made an impact was when he decided to change his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. Many people refused to call him by his new name, given to him by the Nation of Islam leader, Elijah Muhammad, and he addressed everyone by saying, “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name- it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me”. He was so proud of his new name and his black heritage, something that truly encouraged others to stand up for themselves.

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Muhammad Ali was just as impressive in speaking out against what was wrong, as he was in the boxing ring. He was exceptionally courageous and valiant, especially when he made the decision not to participate in the Vietnam war. He was willing to accept the punishment of refusing to participate in such a heinous conflict, one that he didn’t feel was necessary. Ali felt very strongly about this and said, “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America.” He saw no reason in harming a nation that “never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.” The determination it must’ve taken to not only stand up for a nation, but also go against your own, was an incredible act of bravery. Many people at the time, as well as the media and politicians, disagreed with Muhammad Ali’s views and called him countless names, such as a “traitor to the country” and coward. His own country had all of a sudden turned on him. However, he still managed to tolerate all the negativity and stick to his morals. This secured him with a conviction of draft evasion, and he was sentenced to 5 years in prison even though a normal sentence for declining draft for war at the time was only supposed to be 18 months, -another example of the racism he’d faced. He lost his boxing license, passport, money, and most importantly, time. It cost him his prime years of a boxing career that would’ve been unbeatable. As a result, he lost out on a lot of money and his health was also affected, as he was diagnosed with Parkinson disease. In 1971, the supreme court overturned Muhammad Ali’s conviction in a unanimous vote. After this overturned conviction, many people appreciated Muhammad Ali for the stand he took, and the impact he created was unbelievable. It also motivated and influenced high profile athletes like Tony Smith and John Carlos to protest for outfielder Curt Flood’s 1969 challenge against baseball’s reserve clause. This protest led to the making of free agency (where an athlete can sign to whatever team they want.

Another thing Ali had a huge influence on was the entertainment field. His most prized contribution to Hollywood was the fight in 1975 versus Chuck Wepner. Chuck ended up fighting Muhammad Ali for all 15 rounds and even knocked him in the 9th round. This influenced the actor Sylvester Stallone to write the script of the renowned film Rocky. Muhammad Ali had his first album in 1963, (still known as Cassis Clay), called ‘I Am the Greatest!’, this was a spoken record on the label Columbia. This album was number 61 in the album charts and nominated Muhammad Ali for a Grammy. Muhammad Ali received a Grammy also for the tale “Ali and his gang vs Mr. tooth decay” which was a tale about not to eat too much sugar. It won him a Grammy for the Best Recording for Children in 1977. Muhammad Ali was the topic of 10 films. The documentary “When We Were Kings” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary feature in 1996. He was in a documentary also called The Trials of Muhammad Ali; this documentary was about his stance against Vietnam. Also, he starred in the movie King of the World, Michael Man’s 2001 Ali (acted by Will Smith) in which Will Smith was awarded with his first Academy Award Best Actor nomination.

One of the most important ways Ali changed America was through the various charities he supported and the work he did to advance peace. He did lots of work internationally, such as going to Lebanon and Iraq to release hostages, North Korea and Afghanistan to attend goodwill missions, and Cuba to deliver over a million dollars’ worth in aid. His work as an ambassador for peace began in 1985, when he went to Lebanon to release four hostages. The work he did at home was also remarkable, from visiting countless hospitals and soup kitchens to helping very popular organizations like Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics. In November 2005, Muhammad Ali and his wife opened the ‘Muhammad Ali Center’ in Kentucky. This center features an “interactive museum, educational programming, and special events to inspire young adults and adults to pursue greatness in their own lives, communities and countries.”

Muhammad Ali is one of the greatest athletes of all time. The way he changed and transformed the world of sports was inspiring but the impact he had on the world was something else. He was the definition of inspiration. The way he backed up his trash talk against his opponents and how he spoke against being involved in anything that he didn’t believe in, including the War in Vietnam, truly proved the greatness he is known to be. He was a role model to thousands of people across the world simply with his actions and the way he carried himself. He was greatly motivating and changed the lives of millions. Ali once tweeted, “I’ve always wanted to be more than just a boxer. More than just the three-time heavyweight champion. I wanted to use my fame, and this face that everyone knows so well, to help uplift and inspire people around the world,” -and he definitely lived up to these aspirations.

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Muhammad Ali: The Influences of an American Icon. (2021, Dec 14). Retrieved from