Muhammad Ali died on Friday at 74. The three-time heavyweight champion of the world was one of the most famous and celebrated athletes the United States has ever produced.
Ali—who was born as and went by Cassius Clay before changing his name in 1964 after joining the Nation of Islam—had been hospitalized with respiratory issues earlier in the week and he has lived with Parkinson’s disease for years. As Dave Larzelere wrote for Slate in 2008, Ali originally played the part of one of the sport’s greatest villains—intentionally playing off of the racial animosity of 1960s white America—before being recast as one of sport’s greatest heroes.
[Ali’s] flamboyant shtick—a charismatic young fighter reveling in the role of the cocky black braggart—was a shot in the arm for the sweet science. In later years, Ali admitted that he stole large parts of his act, including the “greatest of all time” bit, from Gorgeous George, a legendary pro wrestler of the 1940s.
Of course, for Ali, playing the self-adoring villain was a gesture of racial defiance as well as a promotional tactic. Now that he’s been all but sainted, it’s easy to forget how much of Ali’s fame grew out of the fact that the white middle class hated him and tuned into his fights in the hopes of seeing the Louisville Lip buttoned once and for all.
By the 1970s, Ali had transformed into the good guy. Thanks to a series of epic fights, the vindication of his position on Vietnam, and a genius for selling himself, the most loathed of heels became the hero of heroes and the face of a generation.
Aside from his political activism, Ali obviously had many defining moments as a fighter—winning Olympic gold in 1960, twice defeating Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, defeating George Foreman in Zaire and Joe Frazier in the Philippines.
An entire generation that never knew him as a boxer or a political activist, however, will remember him for his lighting of the 1996 Olympic torch in Atlanta, which will last as one of the enduring images of Ali, the Olympics, boxing, and all of sports. You can watch it below.
Read more in Slate about Muhammad Ali: