(Reuters) - For Bob Arum, the famed promoter who befriended Muhammad Ali some 50 years ago, the former heavyweight champion’s legacy in the boxing ring pales in comparison to his impact on America and the world.
Arum told Reuters on Saturday, the day after Ali died in a Phoenix-area hospital at the age of 74, that his long-time friend should be remembered for standing up against racism and war at a time when doing so was risky and unpopular.
“I think when you talk about Muhammad Ali, as great an athlete, as great a boxer as he was, he was the greatest boxer of all time, he means so much more to the United States and the world,” Arum said.
“He was a transformative figure in our society.”
Arum, 84, recalled that Ali strode onto the world stage in the mid-1960s, at a time when African Americans were still fighting for basic civil rights.
“And while Martin Luther King was talking sense and talking about progress that could be made in his soft-spoken way, Ali, with his big mouth was thundering and demanding rights for African-American people and standing up for what was right,” Arum said.
“At first that didn’t sit well with the people in the United States. At fights he was booed because they felt that he was too outspoken,” he said.
Arum said he disagreed at the time with Ali’s refusal to be drafted into the U.S. Army and fight in Vietnam, a stand that cost the fighter his world boxing crown.
“And I said ‘hell no’, I advised him just the opposite,” Arum said. “But of course he wouldn’t listen. He did what he thought was right. And it turned out he was right, and I was wrong.”
The promoter said Ali gave up three years in the prime of his career to stand up for those convictions and was ultimately vindicated in the public eye.
“So when I look back at his life, and I was blessed to call him a friend and spent a lot of time with him, it’s hard for me to talk about his exploits in boxing because as great as they were they paled in comparison to the impact that he had on the world,” Arum said.
Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Paul Tait