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When Muhammad Ali Came to UAlbany

Heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali gave a stirring lecture to UAlbany students on Jan. 30, 1979. (Photos courtesy the M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives)

ALBANY, N.Y. (June 7, 2016) -- On January 30th, 1979, just three months after winning the world heavyweight championship for an unprecedented third time, Muhammad Ali made his way onto a stage at the University at Albany.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, he was an 18-year-old Olympic gold-medalist in 1960, coached by Albany's own Ben Becker, who graduated from the University (then known as the N.Y. State College for Teachers) in the same year of Ali's birth.

After scoring a major upset against reigning champ Sonny Liston in 1964, he converted to Islam and publicly changed his name, first to Cassius X and then finally to Muhammad Ali, drawing the ire of the boxing establishment and members of the media as well.

But it was his decision -- because of his religious beliefs -- to refuse to serve in the military during the Vietnam War that turned Ali into an icon for civil and religious rights. Faced with a suspension from boxing and criminal charges while at the peak of his abilities at age 26, Ali remained steadfast in his beliefs, and was ultimately awarded a victory when the Supreme Court of the United States overturned his conviction in 1971.

At 37 years of age, despite being an iconic figure in the world of sports and popular culture for nearly two decades, Ali wasn’t sure if he would ever box again. But when he visited UAlbany, he wished to impart some words of wisdom to the sold-out crowd of about 3,000 students, faculty and staff.

The crowd was having none of it, expecting the same brash superstar who would clown around with Howard Cosell during interviews as easily as he would pummel the likes of George Foreman or Joe Frasier in the ring.

Muhammad Ali and Ben Becker at UAlbany, Jan. 30th, 1979.
UAlbany arranged for Ali's Olympic coach and University alum Ben Becker to surprise him when he visited in 1979.

"There’s a time for clowning and a time to be serious. I made $53 million from clowning, but for a while tonight, I’m going to be serious. We’ll clown later," said Ali.

While he was the most recognizable man on the planet, he was unrecognizable to the students who grew up idolizing Ali. But for an hour and 15 minutes, the students at UAlbany got the chance to interact with the man who fought with the U.S. government to ensure religious freedom, and whose goal it was after his career ended to promote goodwill.

"I owe something to the people, the people who made me, the people who bought the tickets," reflected Ali. "And I’m going to give it to them. My life is now dedicated to humanity and peace, and for doing all I can to bring nations together."

His boxing career officially ended in 1981, and after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, he faded quickly from public life. But it didn’t stop him from staying true to his word to bring nations together, perhaps no more famously then when he traveled to Iraq in 1990 to secure the release of 15 American hostages during the build up to the Gulf War. As Ali waited for more than a week to secure an audience with Saddam Hussein, his Parkinson’s medication ran out, making it nearly impossible for Ali to get out of bed, let alone meet with the Iraqi dictator. But Ali fought on, eventually receiving some emergency medication from a Baghdad hospital, but more importantly returning home with all 15 hostages.

At UAlbany, Ali's talk of promoting peace and goodwill was well received, but it didn’t stop the students from clamoring for the more vintage brash boxer whose eloquence was unrivaled in the sporting world. Ali took a few moments to riff on Frasier, Leon Spinks and, of course, Cosell.

“Sometimes I wish I was a dog and Howard Cosell was a tree,” said Ali, filling the gymnasium with uproarious laughter as he threw a few parting shots.

True to form, ‘The Greatest’ delivered.

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A comprehensive public research university, the University at Albany offers more than 120 undergraduate majors and minors and 125 master's, doctoral, and graduate certificate programs. UAlbany is a leader among all New York State colleges and universities in such diverse fields as atmospheric and environmental sciences, business, criminal justice, emergency preparedness, engineering and applied sciences, informatics, public administration, social welfare, and sociology taught by an extensive roster of faculty experts. It also offers expanded academic and research opportunities for students through an affiliation with Albany Law School. With a curriculum enhanced by 600 study-abroad opportunities, UAlbany launches great careers.