01/17/2012 06:31 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2015

Muhammad Ali Birthday: Boxing Champ Is Greatest For His Knockouts And His Quotes

Editor's Note: This post has been republished in celebration of Muhammad Ali's 73rd birthday. It was originally published in 2012.

What is there to say about Muhammad Ali that Muhammad Ali hasn't already said before?

Not very much about his preternatural gifts as a fighter, that's for certain. The boxer who debuted as Cassius Clay and bent foes and fans alike to his will as Muhammad Ali was poetry in motion and in promotion. A heavyweight blessed with the agility of a much smaller fighter, Ali won a gold medal fighting for the USA in 1960 and claimed the heavyweight crown three times during his career.

While his place in sporting history would have been assured had he been as meek outside the ring as he was ferocious and flamboyant within it's confines, Ali became an icon to those who couldn't tell a left hook from a hook shot because of his words and convictions away from the squared circle. Not only was Ali indeed the greatest but he was also the most polarizing and charismatic. He spoke his mind. He spoke about his opponents. He spoke about his religion. He spoke about his politics. The man just spoke. And, when he spoke, the world listened. Some laughed. Others nodded in agreement. And a not insignificant number got red in the face with anger. But regardless of the reaction, Ali had everyone's attention.

It has been asked how people would react if Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow were Muslim. Well, Ali revealed his conversion to Islam after he'd already beaten Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Looking for a more apt comparison to Ali, today's sports fan should wonder what would happen if Tom Brady converted? What about Michael Jordan? While Tebowmania has certainly captured the nation's attention during the past few weeks it is but a slight sniffle of interest compared to the pulsating fever dream that was Ali's reign during the 1960s and '70s. Tebow's rise to the playoffs has been a great story but Ali was the GREATEST. Even the sociopolitical narrative undergirding so much of the adoration and derision being heaped on the quarterback seems awfully low stakes compared to what Ali experienced.

In 1966, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam and refused to serve in the U.S. military. When pressed on this decision, the Kentucky native declared, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong ... They never called me nigger." For his stance, Ali was arrested (although he would never serve jail time), stripped of his title and even his license to fight. It would not be until 1970 that he was able to get back into the ring. He would reclaim the world title in 1974 by defeating George Foreman in Zaire. In terms of skills and storylines, there is just no comparison for Ali.

On Tuesday, the legendary boxing champion who dubbed himself "the Greatest" turned 73 years old. While his battle with Parkinson's disease has weakened him tremendously over the years, the images -- and sound bytes -- of his youthful self remain indelibly printed on our culture.


Muhammad Ali