In 2010, in celebration of Muhammad Ali’s 50 years on the world stage, President Barack Obama penned for USA TODAY Sports the following essay on what Ali has meant to him:
It was the winter of 1959, six months before he would take the sport of boxing by storm at the Rome Olympics, and Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was on the move. Rising at 4 in the morning, before the first glimmer of daylight broke the horizon, Clay would put on his sweats, lace up a pair of old steel-toed Army work boots, and run out into the biting cold. He would crisscross his beloved Louisville, often racing the school bus for 20 blocks down Chestnut Street. “Why doesn’t he ride to school like everybody else?” one student asked. “He’s crazy,” replied one of Clay’s classmates. “He’s as nutty as can be.”
As the world would come to know, that young man would always chart his own course. I was too young to remember Clay before he became Muhammad Ali, when he was not only the heavyweight champion of the world but also at times the object of controversy and even scorn. And I was still in grade school when Ali made his extraordinary comeback after nearly four years of exile and later shocked the world by winning his title back.
It was this quality of Ali’s that I have always admired the most: his unique ability to summon extraordinary strength and courage in the face of adversity, to navigate the storm and never lose his way.
This is the quality I’m reminded of when I look at the iconic photo I’ve had hanging on my wall of the young fighter standing over Sonny Liston. And in the end, it was this quality that would come to define not just Ali the boxer but Ali the man — the Ali I know who made his most lasting contribution as his physical powers ebbed, becoming a force for reconciliation and peace around the world.