Muhammad Ali and Pele are two sporting icons whose names are like a golden bell hung in people’s heart.
Both men have departed us yet their names still carry as much weight today as when they were able to perform for us in their glorious years creating the legacy we still speak of today.
Muhammad Ali born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was an American professional boxer and activist. Nicknamed “the Greatest”, he is regarded as one of the most significant sports figures of the 20th century and is often regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. He held the Ring magazine heavyweight title from 1964 to 1970. He was the undisputed champion from 1974 to 1978 and the WBA and Ring heavyweight champion from 1978 to 1979. In 1999, he was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he began training as an amateur boxer at age 12. At 18, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics and turned professional later that year.
He converted to Islam after 1961. He won the world heavyweight championship, defeating Sonny Liston in a major upset on February 25, 1964, at age 22. During that year, he denounced his birth name as a “slave name” and formally changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Ali refused to be drafted into the military owing to his religious beliefs and ethical opposition to the Vietnam War and was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles.
He stayed out of prison while appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned in 1971. He did not fight for nearly four years and lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War made him an icon for the larger counterculture of the 1960s generation, and he was a very high-profile figure of racial pride for African Americans during the civil rights movement and throughout his career.
Ali fought in several historic boxing matches, including his highly publicized fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier (including the Fight of the Century, the biggest boxing event up until then), the Thrilla in Manila, and his fight with George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle. Ali thrived in the spotlight at a time when many boxers let their managers do the talking, and he became renowned for his provocative and outlandish persona. He was famous for trash-talking, often free-styled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry, and has been recognized as a pioneer in hip hop. He often predicted in which round he would knock out his opponent.
Ali remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion. He is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year six times, and was involved in more Ring “Fight of the Year” bouts than any other fighter.
He was one of only three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. Muhammad Ali was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in its first year and held wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees during an era that has been called the golden age of heavyweight boxing. The Associated Press ranked him as the second best boxer and best heavyweight of the 20th century. His joint records of beating 21 boxers for the world heavyweight title and winning 14 unified title bouts stood for 35 years.
In 1978, three years before Ali’s permanent retirement, the Louisville Board of Aldermen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, voted 6–5 to rename Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard. This was controversial at the time, as within a week 12 of the 70 street signs were stolen. Earlier that year, a committee of the Jefferson County Public Schools (Kentucky) considered renaming Ali’s alma mater, Central High School, in his honor, but the motion failed to pass.
In time, Muhammad Ali Boulevard—and Ali himself—came to be well accepted in his hometown. The Muhammad Ali Mural is a monument dedicated to Ali in Los Angeles.
At the end of the 20th century he was ranked at or near the top of most lists of the century’s greatest boxers. He was crowned Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. Named BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century, he received more votes than the other five candidates combined. He was also named BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year three times.
He was named Athlete of the Century by USA Today, and ranked as the third greatest North American athlete of the 20th century by ESPN SportsCentury. Ali was named “Kentucky Athlete of the Century” by the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Galt House East.
The story of legendary Pele of Brazil is hardly different. Among the most successful and popular sports figures of the 20th century, Pelé was one of the most lauded players in the history of football and has been frequently ranked the best player ever.
Pelé was born Edson Arantes do Nascimento on 23 October 1940 in Três Corações, Minas Gerais, the son of Fluminense footballer Dondinho (born João Ramos do Nascimento) and Celeste Arantes (born November 1922). He was the elder of two siblings, with brother Zoca also playing for Santos, albeit not as successfully.
He was named after the American inventor Thomas Edison. His parents decided to remove the “I” and call him “Edson”, but there was a typo on his birth certificate, leading many documents to show his name as “Edison”, not “Edson”, as he was called.
He was originally nicknamed “Dico” by his family. He received the nickname “Pelé” during his school days, it is claimed, after mispronouncing the name of his favourite player, Vasco da Gama goalkeeper Bilé.
In his autobiography released in 2006, Pelé stated he had no idea what the name means, nor did his old friends, and the word has no meaning in Portuguese.
Pelé grew up in poverty in Bauru in the state of São Paulo. He earned extra money by working in tea shops as a servant. Taught to play by his father, he could not afford a proper football and usually played with either a sock stuffed with newspaper and tied with string or a grapefruit.
In 1956, de Brito took Pelé to Santos, an industrial and port city located near São Paulo, to try out for professional club Santos FC, telling the club’s directors that the 15-year-old would be “the greatest football player in the world”.
Pelé impressed Santos coach Lula during his trial at the Estádio Vila Belmiro, and he signed a professional contract with the club in June 1956. He was highly promoted in the local media as a future superstar. He made his senior team debut on 7 September 1956 at the age of 15 against Corinthians de Santo André and had an impressive performance in a 7–1 victory, scoring the first goal in his prolific career during the match.
When the 1957 season started, Pelé was given a starting place in the first team and, at the age of 16, became the top scorer in the league. Ten months after signing professionally, the teenager was called up to the Brazil national team. After the 1958 and the 1962 World Cup, wealthy European clubs, such as Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United, tried to sign him in vain.
Pelé won his first major title with Santos in 1958 as the team won the Campeonato Paulista; he would finish the tournament as the top scorer, with 58 goals, a record that still stands today. A year later, he would help the team earn their first victory in the Torneio Rio-São Paulo with a 3–0 over Vasco da Gama.
Pelé died on 29 December 2022, at the age of 82, due to multiple organ failure, a complication of colon cancer.