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June 6, 2016

How Muhammad Ali’s life reflected America’s struggles

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Essential question

Do professional athletes have a role in society beyond playing sports?


Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali died of natural causes on Friday in Phoenix, Arizona. He was 74.

The three-time world heavyweight champion was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky in 1942. He learned how to fight at the age of 12.

Just six years later, Ali took gold in the light-heavyweight category at the 1960 Rome Olympics. After he returned home to a segregated Louisville, he was denied service at a whites-only restaurant and threw his Olympic medal into the Ohio River.

Ali continued his rise to prominence when he defeated Sonny Liston in 1964 to become boxing’s new heavyweight champ.

While Ali delighted in the boxing spotlight, he did not back away from expressing his political beliefs. He changed his name Cassius “X” and converted to Islam after meeting Malcolm X.  The Nation of Islam’s group leader, Elijah Muhammad, soon renamed him again as “Muhammad Ali.”

Ali’s boxing dominance continued when he once again defeated Liston in 1965 and coined his signature phrase, ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.’

Ali objected to the Vietnam War, but the Justice Department ruled the objection was political, not religious. Ali was stripped of his title and did not fight for three-and-a-half years.

At age 42, three years into retirement, Ali revealed he had Parkinson’s disease. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded Ali the Medal of Freedom.


Key terms

Nation of Islam — an organization composed chiefly of African Americans, advocating the teachings of Islam and originally favoring the separation of black and white racial groups in the United States

heavyweight — a weight in boxing and other sports, typically the heaviest category. In the amateur boxing scale it ranges from 178 to 200 pounds

conscientious objector — a person who for reasons of conscience objects to serving in the armed forces

Warm up questions (before watching the video)
  1. Who was Muhammad Ali?
  2. Why was the Vietnam War such a turbulent time in U.S. history?
  3. How do the lives of professional athletes reflect debates about American society?
Critical thinking questions (after watching the video)
  1. Why was Muhammad Ali a controversial figure?
  2. Why was Ali’s conscientious objection to military service significant?
  3. Did Ali’s public persona and boastful attitude help or hurt him in the long run? Explain your answer.
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