Excerpted from The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia:
Much can be said of the meaning and impact of his life in the last half of the twentieth century. In this context, Muhammad Ali rose to prominence as a boxer during an era that witnessed the transformation of the sport. The Olympic Games (in 1952, 1956, and 1960) became an international arena in which many athletes achieved celebrity through the new medium of television and through which many lucrative professional careers were launched. Congressional probes into the involvement of organized crime and, as colonialism ended, the emergence of numerous boxers of color in “Third World” nations forced far-reaching changes both in how the sport was governed and in its racial demography. The World Boxing Association (WBA) and the World Boxing Council (WBC), both formed in the early 1960s, were far more representative internationally—and African American fighters became major figures in the heavier weight classes regulated by each organization.
Transcending his celebrity as a boxer, Muhammad Ali achieved international recognition as a symbol of black masculinity, pride, and racial consciousness against the backdrop of social revolution in the 1960s and the beginnings of the decolonization of Africa and other regions of the non-European world. Beyond the practiced theatrics of his youth, the mature Ali forced the boxing establishment and the American and global public to respect him on his own terms. In so doing, he not only insisted upon and preserved his own dignity, but he epitomized the courage to stand on a principle and defy injustice. Ali became a hero to millions throughout the world. As Arthur Ashe concluded, “In retrospect, one must agree with Ali’s self-assessment: He was ‘The Greatest.’”—J. Blaine Hudson, originally published in The Encyclopedia of Louisville (2000).
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