ali-beatlesWhen Michael Jordan – inarguably the most popular athlete since Muhammad Ali – was asked to support a black candidate (Harvey Gantt) running against the reprehensible racist Jesse Helms back in 1990, here was his response:

“Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

When Muhammad Ali was drafted into the Vietnam War (and refused to go), here was what he said:

“I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for 4 or 5 more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”

Perhaps his boxing ability and charismatic personality were the cause of his popularity, but it was what Ali did with that pulpit – spreading a message of peace and tolerance for over 50 years – that truly made him “great.” Unlike Jordan, Ali was willing to take a stand for what he believed in, even if the risk was far greater than the reduced sneaker sales Jordan ostensibly feared.

Ali was convicted of draft evasion on June 20, 1967 and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. He paid a bond and remained free while the verdict was being appealed. He was denied a boxing license in every state, and was stripped of his passport. As a result, he lost the prime of his career (from age 25 to age 29) as his case worked its way through the appeals process. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling, and he was finally given the opportunity to return to the ring.

The courage and conviction he demonstrated was truly extraordinary. He was, and will always be, “The Greatest.” And he will be sorely missed. Goodbye, champ.