Muhammad Ali (/ɑːˈliː/; born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.; January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer, activist, entertainer, poet and philanthropist. Nicknamed The Greatest, he is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century, and is frequently ranked as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. In 1999, he was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.
Born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, he began training as an amateur boxer at age 12. At 18, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics and turned professional later that year. He became a Muslim after 1961. He won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in a major upset on February 25, 1964, at age 22. Also that year, he renounced his birth name as a "slave name", and formally became known as Muhammad Ali. In 1966, Ali refused to be drafted into the military due to his religious beliefs and ethical opposition to the Vietnam War, and was found guilty of draft evasion and stripped of his boxing titles. He stayed out of prison while appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was overturned in 1971. However, he had not fought for nearly four years by this point and lost a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali's actions as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War made him an icon for the larger 1960s counterculture generation, and he was a very high-profile figure of racial pride for African Americans during the civil rights movement and throughout his career. As a Muslim, Ali was initially affiliated with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI). He later disavowed the NOI, adhering to Sunni Islam, and supported racial integration like his former mentor Malcolm X.
He fought in several historic boxing matches and feuds, such as his highly publicized fights with Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, including the Fight of the Century (the biggest boxing event up until then), the Thrilla in Manila, and his fight with George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle. Ali thrived in the spotlight at a time when many boxers let their managers do the talking, and he became renowned for his provocative and outlandish persona. He was known for trash-talking, and often free-styled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry incorporating elements of hip hop, and often predicted in which round he would knockout his opponent.
Outside of boxing, Ali attained success as a spoken word artist, releasing two studio albums: I Am the Greatest! (1963) and The Adventures of Ali and His Gang vs. Mr. Tooth Decay (1976). Both albums received Grammy Award nominations. He also featured as an actor and writer, releasing two autobiographies. Ali retired from boxing in 1981 and focused on religion, philanthropy and activism. In 1984, he made public his diagnosis of Parkinson's syndrome, which some reports attributed to boxing-related injuries, though he and his specialist physicians disputed this. He remained an active public figure globally, but in his later years made fewer public appearances as his condition worsened, and he was cared for by his family. Ali died on June 3, 2016.
Cassius Clay and his trainer Joe E. Martin (1960)
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. (/ˈkæʃəs/ KASH-əss) was born on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He had one brother. He was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who had a sister and four brothers and who himself was named in honor of the 19th-century Republican politician and staunch abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, also from the state of Kentucky. Clay's father's paternal grandparents were John Clay and Sallie Anne Clay; Clay's sister Eva claimed that Sallie was a native of Madagascar. He was a descendant of slaves of the antebellum South, and was predominantly of African descent, with some Irish and English family heritage. Ali's maternal great-grandfather, Abe Grady, emigrated from Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland. DNA testing performed in 2018 showed that, through his paternal grandmother, Ali was a descendant of the former slave Archer Alexander, who had been chosen from the building crew as the model of a freed man for the Emancipation Memorial, and was the subject of abolitionist William Greenleaf Eliot's book, The Story of Archer Alexander: From Slavery to Freedom. Like Ali, Alexander fought for his freedom.
His father was a sign and billboard painter, and his mother, Odessa O'Grady Clay (1917–1994), was a domestic helper. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Cassius Jr. and his younger brother, Rudolph "Rudy" Clay (later renamed Rahman Ali), as Baptists. Cassius Jr. attended Central High School in Louisville. He was dyslexic, which led to difficulties in reading and writing, at school and for much of his life. Ali grew up amid racial segregation. His mother recalled one occasion when he was denied a drink of water at a store—"They wouldn't give him one because of his color. That really affected him." He was also strongly affected by the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which led to young Clay and a friend taking out their frustration by vandalizing a local rail yard. His daughter Hana later wrote that Ali once told her, "Nothing would ever shake me up (more) than the story of Emmett Till."
1960 Olympians: Clay won gold against Zbigniew Pietrzykowski.
Ali was first directed toward boxing by Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin, who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief's having taken his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to "whup" the thief. The officer told Clay he had better learn how to box first. Initially, Clay did not take up Martin's offer, but after seeing amateur boxers on a local television boxing program called Tomorrow's Champions, Clay was interested in the prospect of fighting. He then began to work with trainer Fred Stoner, whom he credits with giving him the "real training", eventually molding "my style, my stamina and my system." For the last four years of Clay's amateur career he was trained by boxing cutman Chuck Bodak.
Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954 against local amateur boxer Ronnie O'Keefe. He won by split decision. He went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay's amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. Ali said in his 1975 autobiography that shortly after his return from the Rome Olympics, he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend were refused service at a "whites-only" restaurant and fought with a white gang. The story was later disputed, and several of Ali's friends, including Bundini Brown and photographer Howard Bingham, denied it. Brown told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, "Honkies sure bought into that one!" Thomas Hauser's biography of Ali stated that Ali was refused service at the diner but that he lost his medal a year after he won it. Ali received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
Main articles: Boxing career of Muhammad Ali and professional boxing record
On-site poster for Cassius Clay's fifth professional bout
Clay made his professional debut on October 29, 1960, winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. From then until the end of 1963, Clay amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout. He defeated boxers including Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, LaMar Clark, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper. Clay also beat his former trainer and veteran boxer Archie Moore in a 1962 match.
These early fights were not without trials. Clay was knocked down by both Sonny Banks and Cooper. In the Cooper fight, Clay was floored by a left hook at the end of round four and was saved by the bell, going on to win in the predicted 5th round due to Cooper's severely cut eye. The fight with Doug Jones on March 13, 1963 was Clay's toughest fight during this stretch. The number two and three heavyweight contenders respectively, Clay and Jones fought on Jones' home turf at New York's Madison Square Garden. Jones staggered Clay in the first round, and the unanimous decision for Clay was greeted by boos and a rain of debris thrown into the ring. Watching on closed-circuit TV, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston quipped that if he fought Clay he might get locked up for murder. The fight was later named "Fight of the Year" by The Ring magazine.
In each of these fights, Clay vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities. He called Jones "an ugly little man" and Cooper a "bum". He said he was embarrassed to get in the ring with Alex Miteff and claimed that Madison Square Garden was "too small for me." Ali's trash-talk was inspired by professional wrestler "Gorgeous George" Wagner's, after he saw George's talking ability attract huge crowds to events. Ali stated in a 1969 interview with the Associated Press' Hubert Mizel that he met with George in Las Vegas in 1961, that George told him that talking a big game would earn paying fans who either wanted to see him win or wanted to see him lose, thus Ali transformed himself into a self-described "big-mouth and a bragger".
In 1960, Clay left Moore's camp, partially due to Clay's refusal to do chores such as washing dishes and sweeping. To replace Moore, Clay hired Angelo Dundee to be his trainer. Clay had met Dundee in February 1957 during Clay's amateur career. Around this time, Clay sought longtime idol Sugar Ray Robinson to be his manager, but was rebuffed.
Fights against Liston
Main article: Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston
By late 1963, Clay had become the top contender for Sonny Liston's title. The fight was set for February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach. Liston was an intimidating personality, a dominating fighter with a criminal past and ties to the mob. Based on Clay's uninspired performance against Jones and Cooper in his previous two fights, and Liston's destruction of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in two first-round knockouts, Clay was a 7–1 underdog. Despite this, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup, dubbing him "the big ugly bear", stating "Liston even smells like a bear" and claiming "After I beat him I'm going to donate him to the zoo." Clay turned the pre-fight weigh-in into a circus, shouting at Liston that "someone is going to die at ringside tonight." Clay's pulse rate was measured at 120, more than double his normal 54. Many of those in attendance thought Clay's behavior stemmed from fear, and some commentators wondered if he would show up for the bout.
The outcome of the fight was a major upset. At the opening bell, Liston rushed at Clay, seemingly angry and looking for a quick knockout. However, Clay's superior speed and mobility enabled him to elude Liston, making the champion miss and look awkward. At the end of the first round, Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston repeatedly with jabs. Liston fought better in round two, but at the beginning of the third round Clay hit Liston with a combination that buckled his knees and opened a cut under his left eye. This was the first time Liston had ever been cut. At the end of round four, Clay was returning to his corner when he began experiencing blinding pain in his eyes and asked his trainer, Angelo Dundee, to cut off his gloves. Dundee refused. It has been speculated that the problem was due to ointment used to seal Liston's cuts, perhaps deliberately applied by his corner to his gloves. Though unconfirmed, boxing historian Bert Sugar said that two of Liston's opponents also complained about their eyes "burning".
Despite Liston's attempts to knock out a blinded Clay, Clay was able to survive the fifth round until sweat and tears rinsed the irritation from his eyes. In the sixth, Clay dominated, hitting Liston repeatedly. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner by TKO. Liston stated that the reason he quit was an injured shoulder. Following the win, a triumphant Clay rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted: "Eat your words!" He added, "I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I'm the prettiest thing that ever lived."
At ringside post fight, Clay appeared unconvinced that the fight was stopped due to a Liston shoulder injury, saying that the only injury Liston had was "an open eye, a big cut eye!" When told by Joe Louis that the injury was a "left arm thrown out of its socket," Clay quipped, "Yeah, swinging at nothing, who wouldn't?"
In winning this fight at the age of 22, Clay became the youngest boxer to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion. However, Floyd Patterson remained the youngest to win the heavyweight championship, doing so at the age 21 during an elimination bout following Rocky Marciano's retirement. Mike Tyson broke both records in 1986 when he defeated Trevor Berbick to win the heavyweight title at age 20.
Soon after the Liston fight, Clay changed his name to Cassius X, and then later to Muhammad Ali upon converting to Islam and affiliating with the Nation of Islam. Ali then faced a rematch with Liston scheduled for May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. It had been scheduled for Boston the previous November, but was postponed for six months due to Ali's emergency surgery for a hernia three days before. The fight was controversial. Midway through the first round, Liston was knocked down by a difficult-to-see blow the press dubbed a "phantom punch". Referee Jersey Joe Walcott did not begin the count immediately after the knockdown, as Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner. Liston rose after he had been down for about 20 seconds, and the fight momentarily continued. However a few seconds later Walcott, having been informed by the timekeepers that Liston had been down for a count of 10, stopped the match and declared Ali the winner by knockout. The entire fight lasted less than two minutes.
It has since been speculated that Liston purposely dropped to the ground. Proposed motivations include threats on his life from the Nation of Islam, that he had bet against himself and that he "took a dive" to pay off debts. Slow-motion replays show that Liston was jarred by a chopping right from Ali, although it is unclear whether the blow was a genuine knockout punch.
Documentaries, videos and podcasts
Muhammad Ali - Amazing Speed
July 28, 2012