Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay in racially-segregated Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. He started boxing when he was twelve years old and proved to be a precocious talent, with a dazzling mix of power and speed. Unlike other boxers, who were clunky and ponderous, he danced gracefully around the ring. Outside the ring he had great charm, personality and humour. He was the first fighter to win the World Heavyweight Championship three times, winning classic fights along the way against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. After beating Liston, he declared himself a follower of the Nation of Islam and took the name of Muhammad Ali. When he refused to fight in the Vietnam War in 1967, to the anger of millions of White Americans, he was banned from boxing for more than three years. He then returned to the ring but some of his magic had disappeared. He finally retired in 1981.
Ali was also one of the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, and later became known for his philanthropic activities. A sufferer from Parkinson’s in his later years, he developed slurred speech and slowed movement due to brain damage from repeated blows to his head. But he remained active and radical in public life. When a visibly-weakened Ali lit the Olympic Flame at the start of the Games in Atlanta in 1996, his appearance, but also his pride and dignity, provoked a wonderfully warm reaction around the world. It remains one of the most moving moments in sports history.
The GOAT: this quirky acronym is a term used to describe something or someone who is considered the absolute best ever in a certain category. Typically abbreviated as G.O.A.T. or GOAT, it appears to undermine the very greatness implied given its more overt reference to the farmyard animal, typically inciting puns and securing its catchiness. In fact, G.O.A.T. has its origin in iconic boxer, Muhammad Ali. In 1992, Ali’s wife Lonnie incorporated G.O.A.T. Inc., an umbrella company to consolidate and license her husband’s intellectual properties for commercial purposes. In 1996, G.O.A.T. was first used online, and in 2000 LL Cool J really helped to popularise the word, when he released an album entitled G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time). The rapper credited Ali for its origin in a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone, saying “Without Muhammad Ali the term G.O.A.T. would have never been coined.” In fact, G.O.A.T was not to become officially a word until 2018, when it was deemed admissible to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. To do so, it had to fulfil three criteria: that of being used by many people in many places; that of being used consistently and increasingly; and that of being used meaningfully, that is, in the same way by everyone.