Muhammad Ali is known around the world as more than just an athlete. He has become a cultural icon, role model, and humanitarian as his influence has spanned generations. As he celebrates his 70th birthday today, Ali’s legacy has helped him cement his claim of being the “greatest.”
“I feel so proud and honored that we’re able to show our feelings and show our support for him,” said former World Heavyweight Champion Lennox Lewis said. “What he’s done outside the ring, just the bravery, the poise, the feeling, the sacrifice; he’s truly a great man.”
On Saturday night, Ali was in his hometown of Louisville, Ky. reveling in the cheers, love, and admiration of hundreds of friends and celebrity admirers at the first of five birthday parties scheduled for this month. This celebration was a $1,000-per-person fundraiser at the Muhammad Ali Center in downtown Louisville.
“The reason I loved him is because of his confidence,” said University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari. “He would talk and then back it up. He had great courage and who had more fun than him?”
Among the attendees at the party were Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Joshua Fattal, the three American hikers who were held captive as accused spies in Iran. It was Ali, one of the most prominent American Muslims, who lobbied for their eventual release.
Ali’s humanitarian efforts have matched his effects on American pop culture. From his numerous quips and catchphrases, to his brash, in-your-face openness, to his controversial stances on race, Ali set a tone far different from professional athletes of his era.
“Ali was the primary reason I took up boxing,” said BBC boxing commentator Mike Costello. “I wonder how many more youngsters across the globe pushed open a gym door for the same reason?”
His effect on pop culture remains prominent to this day. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk-of-Fame, has had 30 books written about him, has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated 37 times (second to Michael Jordan for most ever), and has been the subject of seven movies (including one in which he played himself), including the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings.
Ali also appeared in numerous television programs during the ’70s and ’80s, had advertising deals with Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut, had his own Saturday morning cartoon — NBC’s The Adventures of Muhammad Ali in 1977, and has been referenced in hundreds of songs. In many ways, he was the original pop icon and set the stage for generations of athletes to market themselves on and off the field.
“He’s still the greatest,” Lewis said.