My first memory of Muhammad Ali was his 1964 title fight against Sonny Liston. I was 6 years old and Ali was still known by his birth name, Cassius Clay.

It was the fight in which the boxer exclaimed he’d, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

While I don’t remember the fight, I do remember my mom cheering for Cassius. It was his last day as Cassius Clay and his first day as the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. He was just 22.

The very next day he joined the Nation of Islam. A week later he changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

I don’t know what my Mom, a devout Catholic, thought of Ali’s conversion. It was no doubt controversial.

At the time, the predominately white media initially refused to call him by his chosen name.

Ali then declared himself a conscientious objector, refusing to serve in the U.S. military on religious grounds during the Vietnam War.

He was vilified for his actions; considered by many to be little more than a draft dodger. He was stripped of his title, banned from boxing in his prime and sentenced to prison.

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction.

Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson broke the color barriers, but Ali will be remembered as the first athlete activist.

He was brash, arrogant and defiant. He spoke out against racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. Like his devastating fists, his words made an impact.

He eventually left the Nation of Islam, but not his faith.

Ali’s voice wavered as Parkinson’s Disease progressed, but his message of equality, dignity and tolerance never did.

He went on to reclaim his title and over time turned his critics into admirers.

Ali lived through a chapter in U.S. history, in which an Olympic champion could not be served in a local restaurant, and went on to become one of the most recognizable Americans in the world.

He lived to see the first black president. And he died in a time when the American principles of equality and religious tolerance are being tested once again.

Ali was a defiant black man and a Muslim, who more than anybody in the headlines today, defined what it means to be an American.

Rest in peace, champ.

John’s opinions are his own, and not necessarily those of Denali Media or its employees.