Why Muhammad Ali Was Once The Most Hated Professional Athlete, Perhaps The Most Hated Person, In The United States


In 1964, at the age of 22, Clay took the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston after the latter conceded at the beginning of the seventh round. Though Clay had already won gold at the 1960 Olympics, it was still a stunning upset, and in the process, Clay produced one of sport’s most iconic images — Liston, on the ground, his hands over his head, while Clay stands above him, swings his right arm across his body, and shouts down.

Soon afterward, Clay formally rejected his “slave name” and became Cassius X. After he publicly converted to Islam and became affiliated with the Nation of Islam, X accepted the name given to him by the group’s founder, Elijah Muhammad, and became Muhammad Ali.

Three years later, in 1966, Ali spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War for the first time.
Meanwhile, Ali lost any of the goodwill he’d accrued during the start of his boxing career. During this time, the majority of Americans still supported the Vietnam War, and the press quickly turned on Ali, with one journalist calling him the “Black Benedict Arnold.” The boxing world rejected him as well. He was stripped of his titles, and for three ye ars, between the prime years of 25 and 28, he was unable to get a fight anywhere in the country.


In 1970, a federal court forced the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate Ali’s boxing license, and later that year he regained his heavyweight championship after defeating George Foreman. The following year, the Supreme Court overturned his draft dodging conviction. Thanks to the growing unpopularity of the Vietnam War, along with Ali’s philanthropy and diplomacy abroad, his reputation began to shift.

He would later go on to negotiate for the release of American hostages in Iraq, pressure the U.S. government to more actively support Rwandan refugees, and travel to Afghanistan as a United Nation’s “Messenger of Peace.” In 2005, George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor possible in the United States.

However, he was first and foremost known as an athlete, and in 1996, he was asked to light the flame at the Atlanta Olympics. In 2012, he was the Olympic flag bearer in London, though his advance-stage Parkinson’s left him barely able to stand.

Ali died on June 3, 2016. In addition to the recognition from within the sports world — named “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and the third greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN — he was praised for his lifetime of activism.



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