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Muhammad Ali’s legacy lives on in U.S. boxers at the Olympics

Shakur Stevenson, Charles Conwell and Nico Hernandez pose at a Team USA demonstration. Photo by Ed Mulholland/Getty Images for USOC

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Muhammad Ali called himself the greatest of all time, and the way he continues to inspire the United States boxing team ahead of the first Olympic Games after his passing proves it.

Born Cassius Clay, the 1960 Olympic gold medalist passed away two months before the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields is one of the fighters to look up to the former heavyweight champion.

Ali passed away the same day Shields met another great boxer in Floyd Mayweather, and Ali’s message to the African-American community also makes him an inspiration outside the ring.

“Back when they said that blacks were ugly, he said ‘I’m black and I’m pretty. And I can fight.’ He kind of gave that belief that you are beautiful, that you are brilliant,” Shields said. “I actually went to his memorial, and it was three hours of being very emotional. He was one of the most dangerous fighters in the game, and he was beautiful also.

“But just the way that he brought people together by showing his love to the world. He wanted to bring people together and have us help each other, and that’s one of the biggest things that he left for me. He wanted to continue his legacy not just with boxing. I hope I can do him justice when I speak on him and speak about him, and also when I fight. Nobody will ever be known as great as Muhammad Ali, ever, but at least I can try to get close.”

Mikaela Mayer, the other female boxer in the U.S. Olympic team, hopes to live up to Ali’s legacy as she enters the ring in Rio de Janeiro.

“Muhammad Ali has left a great legacy in the sport,” she said. “I think his passing came in an ironic time, about to go to the Olympic Games. He created a legacy that will be remembered forever. Hopefully girls like Claressa and myself, and all of us can live up to his legacy and represent it in a good way.”

For the male boxers, trying to win an Olympic gold medal like the legendary fighter would be a way to honor Ali.

“Muhammad Ali paved the way for all of us,” said Shakur Stevenson, the first American male boxer to win junior and youth world titles and a Youth Olympic Games gold medal. “He started it all in the Olympics, like everybody else. We’re trying to follow his footsteps and do the same thing. Trying to create a legacy.”

“I think that Muhammad Ali paved the way for me and the rest of the team,” agreed Cleveland’s Charles Conwell, the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team. “Muhammad Ali, coming straight of high school and going to the Olympics, and me doing the same thing, is a real inspiration and motivation for me to go get the gold medal, to fight even harder and live up to his legacy.”

“Muhammad Ali had left a big legacy in this sport,” said Carlos Balderas, who also enters his first Olympics. “He was really cocky, but it’s just the way he was, confident, you know? He backed it up. Those are some big shoes to fit in, but a gold medal would honor him a lot.”

The competition for boxers in Rio start on Aug. 6, and the Americans see the gold medal as the perfect way to follow Ali’s footsteps and start their own legacy in the sport.

“He was always motivating me, inspiring me, and him being a gold medalist and passing away recently, that keeps in my mind to win a gold medal for team USA,” said Antonio Vargas, who turns 20 years old during the Olympics. “Just have that in my mind, to win the gold like he did.”

“Muhammad Ali is definitely an inspiration for me,” Nico Hernandez agreed, “and him being a gold medalist, I just hope to follow his footsteps and just continue to make a good legacy for myself.”

Gary Antuanne Russell, who comes from a traditional family in boxing, already sees himself dedicating the Olympic gold to the greatest.

“He wanted us to walk in his footsteps,” Russell said. “He was a great person, and truly speaking for myself, I’ll dedicate this gold medal to him.”