Muhammad Ali was a fighter all his life, both in and out of the ring. He initially found fame as a champion boxer, celebrated for his unorthodox ring style and witty talk before, during, and after fights. But Ali’s charisma and commitment to social and political causes saw him transcend boxing to become one of the most famous people on the planet, at a time when black people lacked basic civil rights in America.
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay Jr in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a sign painter and his mother a part-time cook and cleaner for wealthy families.
~A Stolen Gift that changed his Life~
- Ali showed at an early age that he wasn’t afraid of any bout—inside or outside of the ring. Growing up in the segregated South, he experienced racial prejudice and discrimination firsthand.
- At the age of 12, Ali discovered his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. His bike was stolen, and Ali told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief.
- “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people,” Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym.
- Ali started working with Martin to learn how to spar, and soon began his boxing career. In his first amateur bout in 1954, he won the fight by split decision.
- Ali went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the light heavyweight division.
- At the age of 18, Clay qualified for the Olympics in Rome.
- He charmed the world media and proved popular among his fellow athletes.
- He proved himself in the ring too, winning gold as a light-heavyweight.
- Clay was famously proud of his medal, wearing it constantly during his stay in Italy and on his return to the United States.
~Ali – The Professional~
- After his Olympic victory, Ali was heralded as an American hero. He soon turned professional with the backing of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, and continued overwhelming all opponents in the ring.
- Ali took out British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in 1963, and then knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world.
~Ali – The Greatest
Often referring to himself as “the greatest,” Ali was not afraid to sing his own praises. He was known for boasting about his skills before a fight and for his colorful descriptions and phrases. In one of his more famously quoted descriptions, Ali told reporters that he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in the boxing ring.
- Speculation about Clay’s religious beliefs had been fuelled by his relationship with black civil rights leader and Nation of Islam member Malcolm X.
- After defeating Liston, Clay publicly acknowledged he was a member of the religious movement. In March, he was given the name Muhammad Ali by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad.
~Ali Vs US Government~
- As war unfolded in Vietnam, Ali received a notice drafting him into the US Army. His next fight would be in a courtroom, rather than a boxing ring.
- Ali objected to serving in the military because of his religious beliefs. He also referenced the mistreatment of black Americans, saying he refused to co-operate with the US government in oppressing another race of people.
- He was stripped of his championship, indicted for draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. Three years later, his conviction was overturned. Away from the ring, Ali toured colleges and spoke out on a variety of social and political issues.
- In 1970, Ali returned to boxing, knocking out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. Next up was Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion.
- Their fight at Madison Square Garden was watched by millions of people in America and around the world. Frazier won a unanimous 15-round decision – it was Ali’s first professional loss.
- Ali had a chance to reclaim his title in Zaire against a new world champion: the hard-hitting heavyweight George Foreman. Again, Ali entered the ring as a 3-to-1 underdog.
- But in front of 80,000 fans, he unveiled a new tactic – the ‘rope-a-dope’. In round eight, Ali launched a powerful combination that knocked the champion to the canvas.
- Ali’s victory over Foreman reinforced his position as the most recognisable person on the planet.
- Ali won a low-key rematch against Joe Frazier in New York. Their rivalry stood at one win each. Meanwhile, tensions between Ali and Frazier were running higher than ever, as Ali continued to goad his opponent in public. He branded Frazier ‘a gorilla’. The fight lasted a punishing 14 rounds.
- After Manila, Ali defended his championship six times before his loss to Leon Spinks, a largely untested fighter with seven pro fights to his credit.
- Seven months later, in September 1978, he defeated Spinks in a rematch to claim the heavyweight crown for an unprecedented third time.
- After a brief retirement, Ali made an ill-advised comeback against Larry Holmes.
- Ali failed to go the distance and was pulled out of the fight by his trainer after the tenth round. He retired permanently at age 40 with a ring record of 56 wins and five losses.
- In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
~Death And Legacy~
Things began taking a turn for the worse within a few years. In early 2015, Ali was hospitalized for a severe urinary tract infection after having battled pneumonia. He was hospitalized again in early June 2016 for what was reportedly a respiratory issue. The revered athlete passed away on the evening of June 3, 2016, at a Phoenix, Arizona facility.
Ali was survived by his fourth wife, Yolanda, whom he had been married to since 1986. The couple had one son, Asaad, and Ali had several children from previous relationships, including daughter Laila Ali, who followed in his footsteps by becoming a champion boxer.
I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was.I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be. I’m free to be what I want.