When Sports Turns Political: Famous Athletes Who Changed the World Forever

#4. Muhammad Ali, Heavyweight Activist

One of the most celebrated sports figures of the 20th century, Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) first won the world heavyweight title at the age of 22 in a huge upset against Sonny Liston. Two years later in 1966 he was stripped of the title after refusing to serve in Vietnam, but when theĀ US Supreme Court overturned his conviction for draft evasion Ali re-entered the ring, taking on Joe Frazier and George Foremen in two separated matches billed as the “Fight of the Century” and the “Thrilla in Manila.”

But it is Ali’s character outside the ring that sets him apart. Never one to shy away from his convictions, Ali was outspoken about growing up in the segregated South. In 1964 he decided to stop using his given name, Cassius Clay (which he called his slave name), and instead took up the name Muhammad X, which he later changed to Muhammad Ali.

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali dedicated himself full-time to education and philanthropy. He was instrumental with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics. In 2005 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George Bush.