Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; January 17, 1942) is an American former professional boxer, philanthropist and social activist. Considered a cultural icon, Ali was both idolized and vilified.
Originally known as Cassius Clay, Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, subsequently converting to Sunni Islam in 1975, and more recently practicing Sufism. In 1967, three years after Ali had won the World Heavyweight Championship, he was publicly vilified for his refusal to be conscripted into the U.S. military, based on his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. Ali stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with themViet Cong… No Viet Cong ever called me nigger” – one of the more telling remarks of the era.
Widespread protests against the Vietnam War had not yet begun, but with that one phrase, Ali articulated the reason to oppose the war for a generation of young Americans, and his words served as a touchstone for the racial and antiwar upheavals that would rock the 1960s. Ali’s example inspired Martin Luther King Jr. – who had been reluctant to alienate the Johnson Administration and its support of the civil rights agenda – to voice his own opposition to the war for the first time.
Ali was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges; he was stripped of his boxing title, and his boxing license was suspended. He was not imprisoned, but did not fight again for nearly four years while his appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was eventually successful.
Ali would go on to become the first and only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion.
Nicknamed “The Greatest,” Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were three with rival Joe Frazier, which are considered among the greatest in boxing history, and one with George Foreman, where he finally regained his stripped titles seven years later. Ali was well known for his unorthodox fighting style, which he described as “float[ing] like a butterfly, sting[ing] like a bee”, and employing techniques such as the Ali Shuffle and the rope-a-dope. Ali had brought beauty and grace to the most uncompromising of sports and through the wonderful excesses of skill and character, he had become the most famous athlete in the world. He was also known for his pre-match hype, where he would “trash talk” opponents, often with rhymes.
In 1999, Ali was crowned ”Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and ”Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.
Amateur career and Olympic gold
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. The younger of two boys, he was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who was named after the 19th century abolitionist and politician of the same name. His father painted billboards and signs, and his mother, Odessa O’Grady Clay, was a household domestic. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Cassius and his elder brother Rudolph “Rudy” Clay (later renamed Rahman Ali) as Baptists. He is a descendant of pre-Civil War era American slaves in the American South, and is predominantly of African-American descent, with some Irish ancestry.
Clay was first directed toward boxing by the white Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin, who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief taking his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to “whup” the thief. The officer told him he better learn how to box first. For the last four years of Clay’s amateur career he was trained by legendary boxing cutman Chuck Bodak.
Clay won 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 states in his 1975 autobiography that he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a ‘whites-only’ restaurant, and fighting with a white gang. Whether this is true is still debated, although he was given a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
Early professional career
After his Olympic triumph, Clay returned to Louisville to begin his professional career. There, on October 29, 1960, he won his first professional fight, a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker, who was the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Standing at 6’3″ (1.91 m), Clay had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. Rather than the normal style of carrying the hands high to defend the face, he instead relied on foot speed and quickness to avoid punches, and carried his hands low.
From 1960 to 1963, the young fighter amassed a record of 19–0, with 15 knockouts. He defeated boxers such as Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark (who had won his previous 40 bouts by knockout), Doug Jones and Henry Cooper.
Clay built a reputation by correctly predicting the round in which he would “finish” several opponents, and by boasting before his triumphs. Clay admitted he adopted the latter practice from “Gorgeous” George Wagner, a popular professional wrestling champion in the Los Angeles area who drew thousands of fans. Often referred to as “the man you loved to hate,” George could incite the crowd with a few heated remarks, and Clay followed suit.
Among Clay’s victims were Sonny Banks (who knocked him down during the bout), Alejandro Lavorante, and the aged Archie Moore (a boxing legend who had fought over 200 previous fights, and who had been Clay’s trainer prior to Angelo Dundee). Clay had considered continuing using Moore as a trainer following the bout, but Moore had insisted that the cocky “Louisville Lip” perform training camp chores such as sweeping and dishwashing. He considered having his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, as a manager, but instead hired Dundee.
Clay first met Dundee on February 19, 1957 when the latter was in Louisville the day before a fight with light heavyweight champ Willie Pastrano. The teenaged Golden Gloves winner traveled downtown to the fighter’s hotel, called Dundee from the house phone, and was asked up to their room. He took advantage of the opportunity to query Dundee (who had worked with championsSugar Ramos and Carmen Basilio) about what his fighters ate, how long they slept, how much roadwork (jogging) they did, and how long they sparred.
Following his bout with Moore, Clay won a disputed 10-round decision over Doug Jones in a matchup that was named “Fight of the Year” for 1963. Clay’s next fight was against Henry Cooper, who knocked Clay down with a left hook near the end of the fourth round. The fight was stopped in the fifth due to deep cuts over Cooper’s eyes.
Despite these close calls, Clay became the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. However, although he had an impressive record, he was not widely expected to defeat the champ. The fight was scheduled for February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida, but was nearly canceled when the promoter, Bill Faversham, heard that Clay had been seen around Miami and in other cities with the controversial Malcolm X, a member of Nation of Islam. Because of this, news of this association was perceived as a potential gate-killer to a bout which, given Liston’s overwhelming status as the favorite to win (7–1 odds), had Clay’s colorful persona and nonstop braggadocio as its sole appeal.
Faversham confronted Clay about his association with Malcolm X (who, at the time, was actually under suspension by the Nation as a result of controversial comments made in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination). While stopping short of admitting he was a member of the Nation, Clay protested the suggested cancellation of the fight. As a compromise, Faversham asked the fighter to delay his announcement about his conversion to Islam until after the fight. The incident is described in the 1975 book The Greatest: My Own Story by Ali (with Richard Durham).
During the weigh-in on the day before the bout, the ever-boastful Clay, who frequently taunted Liston during the buildup by dubbing him “the big ugly bear” (among other things), declared that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and, summarizing his strategy for avoiding Liston’s assaults, said, “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”
First title fight and aftermath
By the third round, Clay was ahead on points and had opened a cut under Liston’s eye. Liston regained some ground in the fourth, as Clay was blinded by a substance in his eyes. It is unconfirmed whether this was something used to close Liston’s cuts, or deliberately applied to Liston’s gloves; however, Bert Sugar has claimed that “in two of his previous fights, Liston’s opponents had complained about their eyes ‘burning,’” suggesting the possibility that the Liston corner deliberately attempted to cheat.
Liston began the fourth round looking to put away the challenger. As Clay struggled to recover his vision, he sought to escape Liston’s offensive. He was able to keep out of range until his sweat and tears rinsed the substance from his eyes, responding with a flurry of combinations near the end of the fifth round. By the sixth, he was looking for a finish and dominated Liston. Then, Liston shocked the boxing world when he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, stating he had a shoulder injury. At the end of the fight, Clay boasted to the press that doubted him before the match, proclaiming, “I shook up the world!”
When Clay beat Liston, he was the youngest boxer (age 22) ever to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion, a mark that stood until Mike Tyson won the title (age 20) from Trevor Berbick on November 22, 1986. At the time, Floyd Patterson (dethroned by Liston) had been the youngest heavyweight champ ever (age 21), but he won the title during an elimination tournament following Rocky Marciano’s retirement by defeating Archie Moore, the light-heavyweight champion at the time.
In the rematch with Liston, which was held in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine, Ali (who had by then publicly converted to Islam and changed his name) won by knockout in the first round as a result of what came to be called the “phantom punch.” Many believe that Liston, possibly as a result of threats from Nation of Islam extremists, or in an attempt to “throw” the fight to pay off debts, waited to be counted out (see Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston). Others, however, discount both scenarios and insist that it was a quick, chopping Ali punch to the side of the head that legitimately felled Liston. Ali was declared the winner after 1 minute and 52 seconds.
Early title defenses
On November 22, 1965, Ali fought Floyd Patterson in his second title defense. Patterson lost by TKO at the end of the 12th round. As would later occur with Ernie Terrell, many sportswriters accused Ali of “carrying” Patterson so that he could physically punish him without knocking him out. Ali countered that Patterson, who said his punching prowess was limited when he strained his sacroiliac, was not as easy to down as may have appeared. During the fight Ali called out “What’s my name?” to Patterson, a gesture he would later repeat during the Terrell fight.
Ali was scheduled to fight WBA champion Ernie Terrell (the WBA stripped Ali of his title after his agreement to fight a rematch with Liston) on March 29, 1966, but the llinois Athletic Commission wouldn’t approve the Terrell fight unless Ali went to Chicago and apologized for his remarks about the war. The fight destination continued to change venues and ultimately was delayed. Ali won a 15-round decision against substitute opponent George Chuvalo. He then went to England and defeated Henry Cooper by stoppage on cuts May 21, and knocked out Brian London in the third round in August. Ali’s next defense was against German southpaw Karl Mildenberger, the first German to fight for the title since Max Schmeling. In one of the tougher fights of his life, Ali stopped his opponent in round 12.
Ali returned to the United States in November 1966 to fight Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome. According to the Sports Illustrated account, the bout drew an indoor world record 35,460 fight fans. A year and a half before the fight, Williams had been shot in the stomach at point-blank range by a Texas policeman. As a result, Williams went into the fight missing one kidney and 10 feet (3.0 m) of his small intestine, and with a shriveled left leg from nerve damage from the bullet that was still lodged in his body. Ali beat Williams in three rounds. Bert Sugar wrote that it had been Ali’s greatest performance in the ring.
On February 6, 1967, Ali returned to a Houston boxing ring to fight Terrell in what is regarded as one of the uglier fights in boxing. Terrell angered Ali by calling him Clay, and the champion vowed to punish him for this insult. During the fight, Ali kept shouting at his opponent, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom … What’s my name?” Terrell suffered 15 rounds of brutal punishment, losing 13 rounds on two judges’ scorecards, but Ali did not knock him out. Analysts, including several who spoke to ESPN on the sports channel’s “Ali Rap” special, speculated that the fight continued only because Ali wanted to thoroughly punish and humiliate Terrell. After the fight, Tex Maule wrote, “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.” When asked about this during a replay of the fight on ABC’s popular “Wide World of Sports” by host Howard Cosell, Ali said he was not unduly cruel to Terrell- boxers are paid to punch their opponents into submission or defeat. He pointed out that if he had not hit and hurt Terrell, Terrell would have hit and hurt him, which is standard practice. Cosell’s repeated reference to the topic surprised Ali. Following his final defense against Zora Folley in March 1967, Ali was stripped of his title the following month for refusing to be drafted into the Army and had his professional boxing license suspended.