Learning from The Greatest: Muhammad Ali and Athlete Activism


We Remember His Words More Than His Punches

In many of the obituaries written after Muhammad Ali’s death on June 3, very little was said about his most famous boxing matches. Dozens of magazines, newspapers, and Websites that usually feature very little sports content nonetheless published tributes to Ali. That’s because Ali was much more than a boxer, much more than just an athlete.

After rising to prominence as an 18-year-old Olympic gold medalist, Ali fought in some of the most important boxing matches in history, including “The Thrilla in Manila” against Joe Frazier and “The Rumble in the Jungle” against George Foreman. Ali won 56 professional matches and captured the heavyweight championship three times, during a time period when boxing was still one of the most popular American sports.


But his actions outside the ring allowed Ali to transcend sports. Ali stood up for African-American rights during the turbulent 1960s. He changed his given name from Cassius Clay, calling it a “slave name.” He also befriended Malcolm X and made frequent statements about black equality.


A Boxer Who Refuses To Fight?

Ali’s most important political stand, though, was his refusal to fight in the controversial Vietnam War. As a converted Muslim, Ali claimed that his religion forbade him from fighting in the war. However, the United States government found him guilty of evading his military duty and sentenced him to time in prison. As a result, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles and was unable to fight for the next three years. Because of his willingness to stand up for his beliefs, Ali likely lost several of the most successful years of his career.


Later on in his life, after the Supreme Court had voted unanimously that Ali had been wrongfully convicted, Ali continued to stand up for his political beliefs. He also became an inspiration to millions of people. After Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, he continued to appear publicly and perform missionary work. Even at the end of his life, when he could barely speak, he showed courage in the face of his debilitating illness.


Courting Controversy

However, that’s not to say that Ali steered clear of controversy. On the contrary, he welcomed turmoil and conflict many times in his life. For instance, many people criticized his unwillingness to fight in Vietnam, calling him a “draft dodger.” Ali responded by saying, “I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger.” Critics also disagreed with Ali’s cockiness and tendency to insult opponents. Some civil rights activists accused Ali of preventing racial progress, pointing out that Ali often made segregationist comments.


Even those who disagreed with Ali would have to admit that the man who many called “The Greatest” changed the way Americans viewed sports. Athletes were no longer expected to keep quiet in the face of political issues.


Can Anyone Compare to Him?

Since Ali, no American athlete has had a bigger impact outside of sports. But many have followed his lead in small ways. Recently, Aaron Rodgers condemned religious intolerance, and LeBron James and many other NBA players have spoken out against police brutality.

LeBron James

But it’s probably safe to say that no athlete will ever have a bigger impact on society than Ali did. Even if we could combine the best traits of multiple athletes, the result still might not reach Ali’s stature. But it’s still interesting to imagine doing just that. What would the ideal modern athlete activist look like?


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Muhammad Ali's Best Knockouts

Muhammad Ali on the Vietnam War and Racism

Ali remembered by those who knew him best

Ali recites poem

Athletes and Activism
Lesson Plan

LEARNING OBJECTIVE: This lesson will teach students how to evaluate the effectiveness of various athletes’ political and social activism. Students will understand that a composite is a combination of various components into a larger entity. This lesson will help students develop such skills as considering the best solutions to various societal and political issues.

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Lesson tags: boxing, Eighth, Featured, MLB, NBA, Ninth, Olympics, Politics, Pop Culture, Seventh, Social Issues, Social Studies, Sports

Francis Tolan

Francis Tolan Francis is a Special Education and Social Studies teacher in the Bronx, NY. He's a new father but he's not too far from being a child himself. You can find his writing about sports, pop culture, fatherhood, and general nonsense on his blog at howblank.blogspot.com.