The Greatest of All Time

Billy Thomas, MD, MPH, Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Professor of Pediatrics

Although there have been thousands of statements, news casts, tweets and articles remembering and giving homage to Muhammad Ali, as a Black male who grew up in the 1960s, I feel compelled to share my perspective.

I first became aware of Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, in 1964 as he was preparing for his first fight with Sonny Liston. What I most remember is the very negative portrayal of both fighters by the media. The fight was more than a boxing match. It was a clash of two very different ideas of what it meant to be a Black man in America.

Liston and Clay were polar opposites, expressions of an oppressive social structure that pigeon-holed Black males, defining them by stereotypes and myths. Neither man was stereotypical. Both were well-defined individuals with personalities, past experiences and affiliations that were outside the norm, especially for Black men.

In one corner was the champion, Sonny Liston, an ex-convict (armed robbery) with an extensive criminal record, ties to the mob and known best for his “superhuman strength,” his lack of conversation and his menacing stare as he intimidated opponents. In the other corner was the challenger, Muhammad Ali, the 22-year-old, fast talking, and some say arrogant and brash, Olympic champion whose nickname was the “The Louisville Lip” (

Neither appealed much to most Americans. In the end the general populous – white and some blacks – rooted for the ex-convict. This is part of what I thought was so odd about the fight. On the one hand, you have Liston who said very little to anyone, and on the other hand you have Ali, who was very independent, confident, candid, socially aware and not afraid to give his opinion no matter what the prevailing social attitudes. If you were going to support only one of the participants the choice seemed fairly straightforward.

However, we must remember this was in 1964. Brown vs. the Board of Education had been in effect for 10 years. Resistance to undoing the racial power structure was entrenched. America was still struggling with segregation and its systematic and long-term generational effects of poor education, poor health, low socioeconomic status, and a general lack of sense of self and social identity in the Black community. Ali was a central figure. He helped Black America pause, self-reflect and re-define itself. During this time, Black people began to reassess themselves in relation to their identity and position in mainstream America. Ali was in the middle of it all.

Unlike today, fights were not televised but broadcast on the radio. The thing I remember most about the actual fight was the blow-by-blow commentary delivered by the ringside announcer along with the excitement and continuous celebration of my father and older brothers as we crowded around the radio to listen.

Finally in the seventh round, Liston did not answer the bell and the fight was over. The entire process – the pre-fight, the fight and the post fight – left me with lots of unanswered questions, but more importantly, I had a new image of what it meant to be a Black male in America. African-American sports figures were typically quiet, compliant and soft-spoken, most likely not so much by choice but by necessity. Now we had Ali, who was none of that. I became aware of how the news media portrayed him and other Black people and their actions as bad or abnormal if they defied the prevailing social structure and notions about Blacks’ place in society.

We must also realize that this was a time in which the country was still reeling from the assassination of a president, John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was on the horizon – all important events that shaped the course of American history. America was in turmoil, but millions of Americans were becoming enlightened, especially Black people.

Ali’s decision to refuse induction into the military based on his religion added fuel to the fire and again served notice of the emergence of a very different Black male. His decision was not popular with either White or Black America. As a result he was stripped of his title and banned from boxing. By some accounts, he was financially devastated. It was a high price to pay for his convictions, but he persevered. In time, events showed us he was right.

Ali was an inspiration and role model to thousands of individuals during the 60’s, 70’s and since. He was such an inspiration to me that after finishing my residency in pediatrics and looking for a fellowship I decided that Louisville would be my number 1 choice. I knew nothing of the hospital, city or medical community.  My decision was based purely on the fact that it was the home of Muhammad Ali. I applied, but then did my due diligence in examining the Louisville program. In the end I chose to do a fellowship in Cleveland, Ohio.

Sports figures are mortal like the rest of us. Nonetheless, they have the power to fascinate us and determine the course of our lives. As did Ali, they can influence young, developing minds in ways that last a lifetime.

Athletes don’t owe anything to society except to be themselves. In most cases that is enough. A few, however, transcend sports and give us a glimpse of the virtues and human qualities that we all feel should be part of the ideal human being. Ali transcended sports to become a “world figure.” He performed amazing feats in the ring, but his most effective blows were delivered outside the ring. He taught us the value of faith, persistence, inner peace, self-worth, honesty, generosity, and how to be humble. Yes, humility. All virtues that should be part of the makeup of all members of society but more so in teachers and health care providers who interact with and provide a public service.  For these and multiple other reasons Ali was and is “The Greatest of All Times”.