Muhammad Ali

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Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali NYWTS.jpg
Career Snapshot
Born January 17, 1942
Died June 3, 2016
Total Fights 61
Won 56
Lost 5
Drew 0
Knockouts 37
Titles Won Heavyweight

Muhammad Ali-Haj (born January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. - June 3, 2016), was an American professional boxer. He is considered one of the world's greatest heavyweight boxers, as well as one of the world's most famous individuals, renowned the world over both for his boxing and his political activism. In 1999, he was crowned Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth century.

After a meteoric and flamboyant rise through the ranks Ali, still fighting as Cassius Clay, won the title against Sonny Liston in 1964 in a major upset. After defending successfully against Liston and former champion Floyd Patterson, he joined the black nationalist Nation of Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali, and refused to fight in the War in Vietnam. He was convicted on criminal draft-evasion charges and stripped of his title, as well as his license to fight. He would remain inactive as a fighter for three years until being vindicated as a conscientious objector by the U.S. Supreme Court and regaining his right to box. His comeback was one of the most dramatic in history, winning epic contests in the mid-1970s against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire and former champion George Frazier, who had previously defeated Ali, in the Philippines.

Ali's abilities declined in the late 1970s, and he finally lost the title to Leon Spinks in 1978. He retired permanently in 1981, with a career record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, against five losses. In 1982, he was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome, following which his motor functions began a slow decline. Despite his lackluster performances after 1975 and his controversial stand as a black nationalist, Ali today is seen as a heroic figure who overcame great odds—both in the ring and outside it—to deserve the title he gave himself as "The Greatest."

Early life

Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Clay was named after his father, who was himself named for the Kentucky abolitionist Cassius M. Clay). At age 12, he had his bicycle stolen, and he reported the fact to a local policeman and boxing trainer, Joe Martin. Martin suggested that Clay learn to fight. Under his guidance, Clay rapidly advanced through the youth ranks. A low-achiever academically, Clay won six Kentucky Golden Gloves while attending high school and was allowed to graduate, despite his poor grades. Presciently, his principal announced during a staff meeting about the issue that Clay would someday be "this school's claim to fame." Clay later joked about his lackluster academic record saying, "I said I was the Greatest, not the smartest."

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Clay won a gold medal as a light heavyweight boxer. Later, after being refused service in a whites-only restaurant, a disgusted Clay threw his gold medal into the Ohio River. He then turned professional, under the tutelage of legendary trainer Angelo Dundee. Ali quickly became famous for his spectacular results, his unorthodox style, and his tireless self-promotion, inspired in part by professional wrestler Gorgeous George and singer Little Richard). The earned the nickname "the Louisville Lip" through his composing poems and predicting in which round he would knock out his opponent. He boisterously sang his own praises, with such sayings as "I am the greatest" and "I'm young, I'm pretty, I'm fast, and no one can beat me."

Ali admitted that he used this ostentation as a publicity device. As a youngster, he learned that boasting with maximum impudence would bring bigger and bigger crowds to attend his fights, because everyone would so desperately want to see the braggart get beaten or otherwise pummeled.


Early professional career

In Louisville, on October 29, 1960, Cassius Clay won his first professional fight, a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker, who was the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia. From 1960 to 1963, the young fighter amassed a record of 19-0, with 15 knockouts. He defeated such boxers as Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Duke Sabedong, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, and Lamar Clark. Clark had won his previous 40 bouts by knockout.

As Clay faced stiffer opposition, he continued his unbeaten streak, often against much bigger men. Among Clay's more impressive victories were against Sonny Banks (who knocked him down earlier in the bout), Alejandro Lavorante, and Archie Moore, a boxing legend who had won over 200 previous fights.

Clay then became the number one contender for Sonny Liston's title. The powerful Liston was greatly feared; the Mike Tyson of his era. Almost no one gave the young boxer a chance of beating Liston. The date was fixed for February 25, 1964. During the weigh-in, the boisterous Ali famously declared that he would "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" to dethrone the champ. The phrase was an apt description for his highly unorthodox style as a heavyweight boxer. He carried his hands at his sides, rather than high to defend the face. Instead, he relied on his extraordinary reflexes and reach (80 inches) to keep him away from his opponents' blows.

Heavyweight champion

Misreading Clay's exuberance as nervousness, Liston was over-confident and apparently unprepared for any result other than a quick stoppage in his favor. In the opening rounds, Clay's speed kept him away from Liston's powerful head and body shots. Clay deftly used his height and reach advantage to counter-punch effectively with his jab. As early as the third round, Liston began to tire visibly, and Clay took full advantage, landing several heavy punches. Clay had also opened a large cut under Liston's eye.

Liston regained some ground in the fourth, as Clay was blinded by a foreign substance in his eyes. The cause of this disability remains controversial: possibly an astringent used to close Liston's cuts which found its way to Ali's eyes accidentally, or a substance intentionally applied to Liston's gloves for a nefarious purpose. The partially sighted Clay was able to keep out of range of Liston during the fourth round, and by the fifth and into the sixth, he was clearly in control again. The end came before the start of the seventh round, when Liston retired on his stool, later claiming his shoulder had become dislocated. Clay leaped out of his corner, proclaiming himself "King of the World," and demanding the skeptical sports writers eat their words.

Clay was duly crowned the heavyweight champion. He would reconfirm his title when he knocked out Liston in the first round of their rematch in Lewiston, Maine on May 25, 1965, albeit controversially. Few observers saw the "phantom punch," a short, chopping right hand, that floored Liston.

That November, Clay met and easily defeated the aging former champion Floyd Patterson. The referee stopped the fight in Round 12, after Patterson had taken a horrible beating.

'Muhammad Ali'

Ali at an Elijah Muhammad speech
Did you know?
Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali after joining the Nation of Islam

Clay also became famous for other reasons: he joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist religious group, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Only a few journalists (most notably Howard Cosell) accepted the name change at first.

In 1966 and early 1967 Ali defended his title a record seven times in the space of one year. In March 1966, Ali won a unanimous decision over tough Canadian champion George Chuvalo. Ali then traveled to England to face "British Bulldog" Brian London and Henry Cooper, who had knocked Clay down in their initial 1963 non-title match. Ali won both fights by knockout. He traveled to Germany next, to face southpaw Karl Mildenberger, the first German to fight for the title since Max Schmeling. In one of his tougher fights, Ali finally won by knockout in Round 12.

In November 1966, Ali returned to the United States to face Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams in the Houston Astrodome. Williams had one of the highest knockout percentages in history and has often been ranked as one of the finest fighters who never won a title. Many felt he would give the champion a tough battle. However, Ali easily knocked him out in the third round. In February 1967, Ali faced Ernie Terrell in the Astrodome. Terrell had earlier refused to acknowledge Ali's changed name, and the champ vowed to punish him for this insolence. Even though the fight went to a decision, Ali easily won every round. He taunted the challenger throughout the fight; after virtually every hit, Ali hollered "What's my name?" Many called his treatment of Terrell cruel and brutal. In March of the same year, and in the same location, he faced 35-year-old Zora Folley. The fight is regarded by many as Ali's finest boxing performance. Throwing nearly every punch sharply and on target, he knocked out the challenger in Round 7.

Conscientious objector

It was in this year of 1966 that Ali refused to serve in the American army during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, saying that he "got nothing against no Viet Cong," widely misquoted as "No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." Ali was stripped of his championship belt and his license to box and was sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was overturned on appeal three years later, by a unanimous decision of the Supreme Court.

Ali's actions in refusing military service and aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod of controversy, turning the outspoken-but-popular former champion into one of that era's most recognizable and controversial figures. Appearing at rallies with Nation of Islam leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, both of whom preached black nationalism and racial separatism, made Ali a target of outrage and suspicion.


In 1970, following his Supreme Court victory, in which he was granted his right to refuse military service for religious reasons, Ali was granted a license to box again and began a comeback. After the long layoff, he suffered a setback in 1971 when he lost his title bid, a bruising 15-round encounter with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden.

This fight, known as The Fight of the Century, was one of the most famous and eagerly anticipated bouts of all time, since it featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had reasonable claims to the heavyweight crown. The fight lived up to the hype, and Frazier punctuated his victory by flooring Ali with a hard left hook in the final round. Ali then split two bouts with Ken Norton, suffering a broken jaw but refused to quit during the loss. He finally beat Frazier on points in their 1974 rematch, to earn another title shot.

Ali's religious views also changed with time. He began to study the Qur'an, and converted to Sunni Islam, rejecting the black nationalist teachings of the Nation of Islam.

Rumble in the Jungle and Thrilla in Manila

The incumbent, George Foreman, was a large, hard-hitting, undefeated young fighter who had previously demolished Frazier, knocking him out in the second round of their championship fight. Foreman was the heavy favorite. The fight was held in Zaire, and promoted by Don King as "The Rumble in the Jungle."

In the October 30, 1974 bout, that would cement his reputation as "The Greatest," Ali boxed his best tactical fight, taking advantage of the 100-degree-plus temperatures in the ring against the stronger but heavier Foreman. Leading with his "wrong" hand and playing "rope-a-dope" by leaning far back on the loose ropes—much to the dismay of his own corner—Ali craftily allowed Foreman to punch himself out, absorbing numerous barrages with his arms and shoulders, while only occasionally throwing counter-punches. By the end of the sixth round, Foreman grew winded, and Ali was able to attack. Foreman kept advancing, but his blows were much less effective, and near the end of the eighth, Ali's right hand finally sent the exhausted Foreman to the floor. As a result of this fight, Ali was awarded the 1974 Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year, and Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year" award.

In 1975, Ali defeated Joe Frazier again in the "Thrilla In Manila," in the Philippines. This fight surpassed their earlier bouts and became one of the most well-known heavyweight fights ever. After 14 grueling rounds, with both fighters badly bruised, Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to allow Frazier to continue. Ali, himself visibly exhausted, was pronounced the winner by TKO. Along with the "Rumble," his fights with Frazier are widely considered among the greatest in boxing history. Ring Magazine named this bout 1975's "Fight of the Year," the fifth time an Ali fight had earned that distinction.

Later fights

Many felt that Ali should have retired after the "Thrilla in Manila," but he continued to box. In 1976, he knocked out two largely unknown opponents, Belgian stonecutter Jean-Pierre Coopman and English boxer Richard Dunn. On April 30, 1976 Ali faced Jimmy Young in Landover, Maryland, a fight regarded by many as his poorest showing. Ali was heavy and out of shape, refusing to take the young challenger seriously. Although he was awarded a unanimous decision the ruling was widely booed by the crowd. Even Ali's loyal trainer Dundee said this was his worst performance in the ring. In September, Ali faced Ken Norton in their third fight, held at Yankee Stadium. Once again, the champion won a widely debated decision.

Ali had a widely promoted "boxer vs. wrestler" match against Antonio Inoki in June 1976, in Nippon Budokan in Tokyo, Japan. The match, a fascicle affair in which Inoki lay on the mat through most of the match and invited an unwilling Ali to engage him, was declared a draw.

He would retain his title until a 1978 loss to 1976 Olympic champion Leon Spinks, who was fighting in only his eighth professional fight. Ali defeated Spinks in a rematch, becoming the heavyweight champion for a record third time.

On June 27, 1979, he announced his retirement and vacated the title. That retirement was short-lived, however, and on October 2, 1980, he challenged Larry Holmes for the WBC's version of the world heavyweight title. Holmes had been Ali's sparring partner when Holmes was a budding fighter; thus, some viewed the result of the fight as a symbolic "passing of the torch." Ali lost by technical knockout in round eleven, when Dundee would not let him come out for the round. The Holmes fight, promoted as "The Last Hurrah," was viewed by both fans and experts with disdain.

Holmes himself admitted later that, although he dominated the fight, he held his punches back a bit out of sheer respect for his idol and former employer. It was soon revealed that Ali had an examination before the fight at the Mayo Clinic, admitting to tingling in his hands and slurring of his speech. The exam revealed that Ali had a hole in the membrane of his brain. However, promoter Don King withheld this report and allowed the fight to go on.

Despite the apparent finality of his loss to Holmes and his increasingly suspect medical condition, Ali would fight one more time. On December 11, 1981, he faced rising contender and future world champion Trevor Berbick, in what was billed as "The Drama in the Bahamas." Because Ali was widely viewed as a "shot" fighter, few American venues expressed much interest in hosting the bout, and few fans were interested in attending or watching it. Compared to the mega-fights Ali fought earlier in his career, the match took place in virtual obscurity, in Nassau. Although Ali performed marginally better against Berbick than he had against Holmes 14 months earlier, he lost a 10-round unanimous decision.

Following this loss, Ali retired permanently in 1981, with a career record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, against five losses.

Retirement and death

Ali in later life

Ali was diagnosed with pugilistic Parkinson's syndrome in 1982, following which his motor functions began a slow decline.

Although controversial and bold, he remained a hero to millions around the world. In 1985, he was called upon to negotiate for the release of kidnapped Americans in Lebanon. In 1996, he had the honor of lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Georgia. At the same Olympics, Ali was also presented with a new gold medal to replace the previous one he had reportedly thrown away.

On November 17, 2002, Muhammad Ali went to Afghanistan as "U.N. Messenger of Peace." He was in Kabul for a three-day goodwill mission as a special guest of the United Nations.[1]

Ali's Presidential Medal of Freedom

He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony on November 9, 2005,[2] and the "Otto Hahn peace medal in Gold" of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin for his work with the United States civil rights movement and the United Nations (December 17, 2005).

On July 27, 2012, Ali was a titular bearer of the Olympic Flag during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. He was helped to his feet by his wife Lonnie to stand before the flag due to his Parkinson's rendering him unable to carry it into the stadium.

Ali was hospitalized in Scottsdale on June 2, 2016, with a respiratory illness. Though initially described as "fair," his condition worsened and he died the following day, aged 74, from septic shock.


Muhammad Ali attained mythical stature in American life. Although he was a great man with many faults, some view Ali's legacy as one of a man who used his fame to denounce war and inequality, acting as a beacon of light to oppressed people. Others view Ali as egocentric, someone who chose not to enter the Army for less than noble reasons. Regardless, most view Ali as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—heavyweight fighters of all time.

The $60 million Muhammad Ali Center opened in downtown Louisville, Kentucky in the fall of 2005. In addition to displaying his boxing memorabilia, the center focuses on core themes of peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth.


  • The Greatest 1977, (starring Ali as himself)[3]
  • Ali (2001, directed by Michael Mann, starring Will Smith)
  • When We Were Kings (filmed 1974, released 1996, documentary about the "Rumble in the Jungle" by filmmaker Leon Gast)
  • I Am the Greatest: The Adventures of Muhammad Ali, an animated television series


  1. Press Centre, UN Messenger of Peace Muhammad Ali visits Kabul to lend support to struggling nation
  2. Office of the Press Secretary, Citations for Recipients of the 2005 Presidential Medal of Freedom The White House, November 9, 2005. Retrieved June 23, 2016.
  3. The Greatest Retrieved May 24, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Haskins, James, and Velasquez, Eric. Champion: The Story of Muhammad Ali. New York: Walker & Co., 2002. ISBN 9780802787859
  • Hauser, Thomas. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991. ISBN 9780671688929
  • Myers, Walter Dean. The Greatest: Muhammad Ali. New York: Scholastic Press, 2001. ISBN 9780590543422
  • Smith, Charles. R., and Bryan Collier. Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007. ISBN 9780763616922


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