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Critics, admirers spar over Muhammad Ali's legacy

Sinner or saint? Hero or draft-dodging villain? Race-conscious firebrand, or post-racial icon?

How about all of the above?

The death of Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer who battled Parkinson's Disease for decades, sparked an outpouring of grief and tributes all over the Internet. Countless celebrities and public figures—including the fallen fighter's daughters—took to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to honor the memory of the world-bestriding pugilist.


Yet as news of his death spread on Saturday, social media users issued a blizzard of punches and counter punches over the most controversial parts of the boxer's legacy. In particular, some pointed to Ali's inflammatory comments on racism and the possibility of racial reconcilation.

Although the honorifics far surpassed the negatives, Ali's incendiary remarks on race, patriotism and religion were hotly debated in a flurry of social media posts. They served as an undercurrent to the discussion over the boxer's legacy, which was once defined by the most controversial—his refusal to join the Selective Service during the Vietnam War.

'Great human'

Roy Nunn, a 72 year old resident of Colorado Springs, Co. who once met Sonny Liston—the boxer whose defeat helped launch the legend of Ali as "The Greatest"—called the fallen icon a "great human" in an email to CNBC.

"I was two years younger than Ali and during the 60's, certainly by me a young white teenager, he was a great athlete," Nunn recalled.

"There were moments, but all in all he was someone who tried to lead black people to a better life, develop pride, and worked to discover and understand God," he said. "As a man he was a superb fighter, an entertainer, and a joy to watch."

Ali's rejection of the U.S. draft at the height of Vietnam "was a powerful moment, and it resonated around the world because remember that the Vietnam War around the world was seen as a puzzlement for most people," said Stephen L. Carter, a Yale law professor and social commentator, in an interview with NPR on Saturday.

"One of the great things about Ali's story is exactly that he could rise from the background that he did at the time that he did from this figure who generates this controversy become, in a sense, this worldwide ambassador for peace, this enormous hero," Carter added.


That moment, along with Ali's embrace of Islam and pointed rejection of racial integration at the height of the civil rights era, helped endear the boxer to blacks, who reveled in his militancy. Indeed, a few on Saturday played up that aspect of his persona while dismissing those who sought to downplay it.

Despite some of his more provocative remarks about interracial marriage and racism, Ali's interaction with sportscasting legend Howard Cosell became the stuff of entertainment for millions of Americans.

"I choose to remember Ali as a great Olympian and an entertainer," said Dan Lumsden, a 72-year old Florida resident. "Boxing was his stage and Howard Cosell was his foil for his real expertise with words."

Regardless, Ali's enduring reputation as one of boxing's greats made him a cultural icon with people from all walks of life. Decades after Ali ceased boxing professionally, his likeness adorns countless T-shirts while the voluble fighter's quotes have launched hundreds of Internet memes.