When the bell rang to begin the seventh round of the heavyweight championship of the world that long-ago February day in 1964 in Miami and a battered Sonny Liston, slumped on a stool in his corner, spat out his mouth guard instead of standing up, it was the ridiculed long shot, Cassius Clay, on his feet, ready, who realized first, a moment before anyone else, what had just happened. Shooting his arms into the air in triumph, his mouth a wide ‘‘O’’ of joy, he managed a brief victory dance alone in the center of the ring before pandemonium erupted and the world came over the ropes to embrace him.
‘‘I am the greatest!’’ Clay shouted into the microphone that would be stuck into his face for the next half-century. ‘‘I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world!’’
And so he was, for one more day as Cassius Clay, then for decades as Muhammad Ali, the only man to win the title of heavyweight boxing champion three times, a reign interrupted in 1967 by his refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army, a moral stand that stalled his boxing career and deprived him of the fortune he could have earned during three years in his prime, but cemented his fame as a revered cultural icon.
Ali was a brash, bragging, rhyming champion who, despite riches, still cared deeply about social issues, ‘‘a new kind of black man,’’ to use his phrase, fearless, proud, independent, who expanded what it means to be a hero and introduced many in this country to the Muslim faith. Ali settled into decades as a sort of roving ambassador, controversy fading into universal affection, ending up among the most beloved, most recognizable, most important stars of the 20th century, without question the most significant athlete who ever lived....
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