Best Sports Legend (2012)

Muhammad Ali

We saw Muhammad Ali in Phoenix earlier this year, and he looked good for a man who has fought Parkinson's disease for decades. But when he was helped to his feet at the Summer Olympics in London recently as a titular bearer of the Olympic flag, we were struck with how weak the former mightiest athlete on the planet has become.

The Scottsdale resident, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, has been called the greatest athlete in history, a king in a sport that is more difficult than professional ice hockey and NFL football combined. His achievements are legendary: first, a gold medal as a light-heavyweight in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, followed by legendary heavyweight fights with Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, and George Foreman. His and Foreman's "Rumble in the Jungle" became the subject of the phenomenal 1996 documentary film When We Were Kings and later resulted in a movie starring Will Smith as Ali. He beat all the top heavyweight boxers of his era, eventually losing to Leon Spinks in 1976. But he was maybe even more legendary for his politics than his boxing. After converting to Islam, he declared himself a conscientious objector, saying "war is against the teachings of the Holy Qur'an" and later "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong . . . They never called me nigger." He later was arrested for refusing induction into the U.S. Army and lost his boxing license until 1970, when a court ruled that he'd been unfairly penalized. His career resumed and his famous fights with the aforementioned champions ensued. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1984, a syndrome associated with head trauma. Because of it, he couldn't carry the Olympic flag into the stadium this summer — he instead stood next to it in a sobering moment for us all.


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