Muhammad Ali

A Biography of the Famous Boxer

Cassius Clay punching Doug Jones

Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942–June 3, 2016) was one of the most famous boxers of all time. His conversion to Islam and draft evasion conviction surrounded him with controversy and even exile from boxing for three years. Despite the hiatus, his quick reflexes and strong punches helped Muhammad Ali become the first person in history to win the heavyweight title three times.

At the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympics, Muhammad Ali showed the world his strength and determination in dealing with the debilitating effects of Parkinson's syndrome by lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Early Life

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. at 6:35 p.m. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Cassius Clay Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay. Cassius Clay Sr. was a muralist, but he painted signs for a living. Odessa Clay worked as a housecleaner and a cook. Two years after Ali was born, the couple had another son, Rudolph ("Rudy").

Becoming a Boxer

When Ali was 12 years old, he and a friend went to the Columbia Auditorium for the free hot dogs and popcorn available for visitors to the Louisville Home Show. When the boys were done eating, they went back to get their bicycles—only to discover that Ali's had been stolen.

Furious, Ali went to the basement of the Columbia Auditorium to report the crime to police officer Joe Martin, who was also a boxing coach at the Columbia Gym. When Ali said he wanted to beat up the person who stole his bike, Martin told him that he should probably learn to fight first. A few days later, Ali started boxing training at Martin's gym.

From the very beginning, Ali took his training seriously. He trained six days a week. On school days, he woke early in the morning so he could go running and then would go work out at the gym in the evening. When Martin's gym closed at 8 p.m., Ali would then go train at another boxing gym.

Over time, Ali also created his own eating regimen that included milk and raw eggs for breakfast. Concerned about what he put in his body, Ali stayed away from junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes so that he could be the best boxer in the world.

The 1960 Olympics

Even in his early training, Ali boxed like no one else. He was fast. So fast that he didn't duck punches like most other boxers; instead, he just leaned back away from them. He also didn't put his hands up to protect his face; he kept them down by his hips.

In 1960, the Summer Olympics were held in Rome. Ali, then 18 years old, had already won national tournaments such as the Golden Gloves and so he felt ready to compete at the Olympics. On Sept. 5, 1960, Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) fought against Poland's Zbigniew Pietrzyskowski (1934–2014) in the light-heavyweight championship bout. In a unanimous decision, the judges declared Ali the winner. He was an Olympic gold medalist.

Having won the gold medal, Ali had attained the top position in amateur boxing. It was time for him to turn professional.

Winning the Heavyweight Title

As Ali started fighting in professional bouts, he realized that there were things he could do to create attention for himself. For instance, before fights, Ali would say things to worry his opponents. He would also frequently declare, "I am the greatest of all time!"

Often before a fight, Ali would write poetry that either called the round his opponent would fall or boast of his own abilities. Muhammad Ali's most famous line was when he promised to "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

His theatrics worked. Many people paid to see Ali's fights just to see such a braggart lose. In 1964, even heavyweight champion Charles "Sonny" Liston (1932–1971) got caught up in the hype and agreed to fight Ali.

On Feb. 25, 1964, Ali fought Liston for the heavyweight title in Miami. Liston tried for a quick knockout, but Ali was too fast to catch. By the seventh round, Liston was too exhausted, had hurt his shoulder, and was worried about a cut under his eye. Liston refused to continue the fight. Ali became boxing's heavyweight champion of the world.

The Nation of Islam and Name Change

The day after the championship bout with Liston, Ali publicly announced his conversion to Islam. The public was not happy with his decision. Ali had joined the Nation of Islam, a group led by Elijah Muhammad that advocated for a separate black nation. Since many people found the Nation of Islam's beliefs to be racist, they were angry and disappointed that Ali had joined them.

Up to this point, Muhammad Ali was still known as Cassius Clay. When he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, he shed his "slave name" (he had been named after a white abolitionist that had freed his slaves) and took on the new name of Muhammad Ali.

Banned From Boxing for Draft Evasion

During the three years after the Liston fight, Ali won every bout. He had become one of the most popular athletes of the 1960s and was a symbol of black pride. Then in 1967, Muhammad Ali received a draft notice: the United States was calling up young men to fight in the Vietnam War.

Since Ali was a famous boxer, he could have requested special treatment and just entertained the troops. However, Ali's deep religious beliefs forbade killing, even in war, and so Ali refused to go.

In June 1967, Muhammad Ali was tried and found guilty of draft evasion. Although he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in jail, he remained out on bail while he appealed. But despite being on appeal, in response to public outrage, the New York State Athletic Commission and the World Boxing Association stripped him of his title and banned him from boxing.

For three and a half years, Ali was "exiled" from professional boxing. While watching others claim the heavyweight title, Ali lectured around the country to earn some money.

Back in the Ring

By 1970, the American general public had become dissatisfied with the Vietnam War and was thus easing its anger against Ali. This change in public opinion meant Ali was able to rejoin boxing.

After participating in an exhibition match on Sept. 2, 1970, Ali fought in his first real comeback bout on October 26, 1970, against Jerry Quarry (1945–1999) in Atlanta, Georgia. During the fight, Muhammad Ali appeared slower than he used to be; yet before the start of the fourth round, Quarry's manager threw in the towel.

Ali was back and he wanted to reclaim his heavyweight title.

The Fight of the Century: Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier (1971)

On March 8, 1971, Ali got his chance to win back the heavyweight title. Ali was to fight Joe Frazier (1944–2011) at Madison Square Garden.

Billed as "the Fight of the Century," it was viewed in 35 countries around the world and was the first fight Ali used his "rope-a-dope" technique. That involved Ali leaning on the ropes and protecting himself while he let his opponent hit him repeatedly. The intention was to quickly tire out his opponent.

Although Ali did well in a few of the rounds, in many others he was pounded by Frazier. The fight went the full 15 rounds, with both fighters still standing at the end. The fight was unanimously awarded to Frazier. Ali had lost his first professional fight and had officially lost the heavyweight title.

Shortly after the bout, Ali won a different kind of fight: His appeals against his draft evasion conviction had gone all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously reversed the lower court's decision on June 28, 1971. Ali had been exonerated.

The Rumble in the Jungle: Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman

On Oct. 30, 1974, Muhammad Ali had another chance at the championship title. In the time since Ali lost to Frazier in 1971, Frazier himself had lost his championship title to George Foreman (b. 1949). While Ali had won a rematch against Frazier in 1974, Ali was much slower and older than he used to be and was not expected to have a chance against Foreman. Many considered Foreman to be unbeatable.

The bout was held in Kinshasa, Zaire, and was thus billed as "the Rumble in the Jungle." Once again, Ali used his rope-a-dope strategy—this time with much more success. Ali was able to tire out Foreman so much that by the eighth round, Ali knocked Foreman out.

For the second time, Ali had become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Thrilla in Manila: Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier

Joe Frazier really did not like Muhammad Ali. As part of the antics before their fights, Ali had called Frazier an "Uncle Tom" and a gorilla, among other racial slurs. Ali's comments greatly angered Frazier.

Their third match against each other was held on October 1, 1975, and was called the "Thrilla in Manila" because it was held in Manila, Philippines. The fight was brutal. Both Ali and Frazier hit hard. Both were determined to win. By the time the bell for the 15th round was rung, Frazier's eyes were swollen nearly shut; his manager wouldn't let him continue. Ali won the fight, but he himself was badly hurt as well.

Both Ali and Frazier fought so hard and so well that many consider this fight to be the greatest boxing fight in history.

Winning the Championship Title a Third Time

After the Frazier fight in 1975, Muhammad Ali announced his retirement. This, however, did not last long, as it was just too easy to pick up a million dollars here or there by fighting one more bout. Ali did not take these fights very seriously and became lax on his training.

On Feb. 15, 1978, Ali was extremely surprised when novice boxer Leon Spinks (b. 1953) beat him. The bout had gone all 15 rounds, but Spinks had dominated the match. The judges awarded the fight—and the championship title—to Spinks.

Ali was furious and wanted a rematch. Spinks obliged. While Ali worked diligently to train for their rematch, Spinks did not. The second fight did go the full 15 rounds again, but Ali was the obvious winner. Not only did Ali win back the heavyweight champion title, he became the first person in history to win it three times.

Retirement and Parkinson's Syndrome

After the Spinks fight, Ali retired on June 26, 1979. He did fight Larry Holmes (b. 1949) in 1980 and Trevor Berbick (1954–2006) in 1981 but lost both fights. The fights were embarrassing; it was obvious that Ali should stop boxing.

Ali had been the greatest heavyweight boxer in the world three times. In his professional career, he won 56 bouts and lost only five. Of the 56 wins, 37 of them were by knockout. Unfortunately, all of these fights took a toll on Muhammad Ali's body.

After suffering increasingly slurred speech, shaking hands, and over-tiredness, Ali was hospitalized in September 1984 to determine the cause. His doctors diagnosed Ali with Parkinson's syndrome, a degenerative condition that results in decreased control over speech and motor skills.

After being out of the limelight for more than a decade, Ali was asked to light the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. Ali moved slowly and his hands shook, yet his performance brought tears to many who watched.

Since then, Ali worked tirelessly to help charities around the world. He also spent a lot of time signing autographs.

On June 3, 2016, Muhammad Ali died at age 74 in Phoenix, Arizona, after suffering from respiratory problems. He remains a hero and icon of the 20th century.

Sources

  • Edmonds, Anthony O. "Muhammad Ali: A Biography." ABC-CLIO, 2005.
  • Gorn, Elliott J. "Muhammad Ali, the People's Champ."
  • Hauser, Thomas and Muhammad Ali. "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times." New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.