Muhammad Ali's top 10 most significant non-boxing moments

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

Muhammad Ali rubbed shoulders with royalty, dining with kings, queens, presidents and popes, but he remained one of the most popular athletes in history because of his ties to the common man.

Muhammad Ali's impact outside the ring was just as significant as his boxing career. (AP Photo)
Muhammad Ali's impact outside the ring was just as significant as his boxing career. (AP Photo)

Promoter Don King, who staged many of Ali’s biggest fights, said the secret to Ali’s success was because he was a man of the people.

“His magic lied in his people ties,” King said. “If ever there was one, Ali truly was the people’s champion. He was a man who stood up for what he believed in, no matter the consequences. He was so proud and honored when the U.S. Supreme Court backed him up. But he never forgot where he came from.”

But Ali, who died of respiratory failure Friday at 74, rose from humble beginnings in Louisville, Ky., to become a global icon.

These are his 10 most significant non-boxing moments:

10. Meeting pro wrestler Gorgeous George, approx. 1961 – Ali was a flashy talker long before he met the noted pro wrestler. Ali’s longtime friend, Gene Kilroy, told Yahoo Sports, “He was like the mayor of the Olympic village.”

But he changed a bit when he met Gorgeous George. He watched pro wrestling, or “rassling,” as he called it, and said listening to Gorgeous George do his promos made him want to do the same.

He became one of the best trash talkers in the history of the sport.

9. Announces retirement after loss to Trevor Berbick – Ali lost a 10-round decision on Dec. 11, 1981, in the Bahamas, a fight he should never have taken. His skills had eroded, he wasn’t in shape and there was no point to the bout.

Berbick, only a shell of the fighter a prime Ali had been, won going away.

The next day, he announced his retirement for good, never again to grace the ring.

8. Calls on Iran to release Washington Post journalist – Ali always said Islam was a religion of peace and he condemned the radical jihadists until his final days.

Ali put out a statement on March 12, 2015, to the leaders of Iran, who had taken Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian hostage on July 22, 2014.

Ali, who became a Sunni Muslim in 1975, urged the Iranians to free Rezaian in a statement he released to the National Press Club.

He wrote:

“I am sorry that I cannot be physically present to lend my support in person but I pray my words will provide relief to the efforts to secure the release of Jason Rezaian.

“Insha'Allah. It is my great hope that the government and judiciary of Iran will end the prolonged detention of journalist Jason Rezaian and provide him with access to all his legal options. During his time as the Washington Post bureau chief in Tehran, Jason used his gift of writing and intimate knowledge of the country to share the stories of the people and culture of Iran to the world.

“To my knowledge Jason is a man of peace and great faith, a man whose dedication and respect for the Iranian people is evident in his work.

“I support his family, friends and colleagues in their efforts to obtain his release.”

Even in his final years, in declining health, Ali tried to make a difference in people’s lives.

Muhammad Ali surprised everyone with his appearance at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Muhammad Ali surprised everyone with his appearance at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

7. Ali lights the Olympic Torch, 1996 Summer Olympics

– Much of the final 30 years of his life, Ali would cause everyone to stand and applaud when he walked into a room. Often, they’d also chant his last name as they cheered him.

The U.S. Olympic Committee managed to keep secret the fact Ali would participate.

When Ali appeared, holding the torch aloft as his arm trembled as a result of his Parkinson’s, the crowd erupted in glee.

6. Ali gets an audience with Pope John Paul II, June 5, 1982 – Ali was a Muslim, but it didn’t stop the Pope from wanting to speak with him. John Paul was a sports fan and knew Ali’s background well.

Ali and the Pontiff signed autographs for each other in yet another indication of his global reach.

5. Ali is diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1984 – Known early in his career as the “The Louisville Lip,” Ali was one of the great talkers in sports. He would recite poetry, make predictions and trash talk his opponents with regularity.

His interviews and verbal jousting with ABC broadcaster Howard Cosell are the stuff of legends.

But while no fighter could silence Ali, Parkinson’s did. He developed tremors and his speech at first slowed before it became extremely difficult for him to speak.

He worked hard to raise money to support research into Parkinson’s and a Phoenix hospital, The Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, was named in his honor.

4. Ali meets with Saddam Hussein to secure hostages release – Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had taken many hostages not long after he invaded Kuwait in 1990. Among them were 15 Americans.

This was before the start of the Gulf War, and the United Nations secured the release of most of the hostages, but not the Americans.

Against the wishes of President George H.W. Bush, Ali flew to Baghdad, Iraq, on Nov. 23, 1990, to negotiate for the release of the Americans.

Ali met Hussein on Nov. 29. On Dec. 2, Ali and all 15 Americans boarded a plane in Baghdad that would take them to New York and, ultimately, freedom.

3. Superstar athletes attend 'Ali Summit' in Cleveland – On June 4, 1967, after he had refused induction into the military service and only weeks before he was convicted in a Houston court, some of the greatest black athletes in the world convened a meeting in Cleveland. Including Ali, 12 men, attended the meeting that was designed to lend support to Ali’s cause as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.

In the first row were Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, Ali, Jim Brown, the retired great from the Cleveland Browns and Lew Alcindor of UCLA (now known as basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

The meeting came at the height of the Civil Rights battle and at a time when it was frowned upon for blacks to speak out. Jabbar wrote about Ali’s stand Saturday on Facebook.

"At a time when blacks who spoke up about injustice were labeled uppity and often arrested under one pretext or another, Muhammad willingly sacrificed the best years of his career to stand tall and fight for what he believed was right. In doing so, he made all Americans, black and white, stand taller. I may be 7'2" but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow."

Ali was a man of courage who stood up for what he believed. The 11 athletes and community leaders who joined him proved they, too, would fight for what was right.

2. Ali was stripped of the title, summer 1967 – After Ali refused induction into the military service, there was nothing stopping him from continuing to box.

But public sentiment, which would later change dramatically, was overwhelmingly against him at the time.

The WBA and the WBC stripped him of their titles, and the states refused to license him. Given that as part of his conviction he had to surrender his passport, it effectively ended the first stage of his boxing career.

“He was great in his comeback, but he was never the same he was before he was [stripped],” promoter Bob Arum said.

The former Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. (AP Photo)
The former Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali. (AP Photo)

1. Ali changes his name night after winning the title

– A 22-year-old Ali knocked out Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami, Fla. The next morning, with Malcolm X at his side, Ali held a news conference.

He was still known as Cassius Clay, but that was about to change.

He didn’t, however, immediately go by the name he’d later make famous. On Feb. 26, 1964, he said he renounced his given name as a slave name and said he would be known as “Cassius X” for the time being.

He said that Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader, would choose a holy name for him and that he would be known as Cassius X until he did.

On March 6, 1964, Elijah Muhammad christened Cassius X, Muhammad Ali.