Muhammad Ali (1942 - 2016) was one of the greatest boxers the world has ever known. He was the first in his sport to earn a world heavyweight championship title on three different occasions, and succeeded in defending his title a total of 19 times. He won an Olympic gold medal as an amateur, and in a career spanning the years 1961 to 1980, fought 61 bouts, winning 56 of them. Thirty-seven of these he won in a knock-out.
In 1967, the Guinness Book of Records listed Ali as the highest-paid athlete in terms of annual earnings. In 1978, he held the record for most heavyweight world title recaptures, in addition to the record for most lineal world heavyweight championships.
Learning to fight hate
Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., in Louisville, Kentucky. As a child, he became aware of the harmful effects of racism and segregation. When he was 13, he heard the news about Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who had been brutally murdered in Mississippi because of racist hatred. Later in life, Ali would look back on the memory of Till’s murder and realize that the news reports could “just as easily have been...about me or my brother.”
The lifelong commitment that the adult Muhammed Ali showed to the wellbeing of young people all over the world was born out of incidents like that one. Carrying those early experiences with him throughout his life, he strived to use his platform as a celebrity to speak out against multiple kinds of injustice.
“My fighting had a purpose,” Ali once said. He felt that, as he became increasingly more successful in the ring, more people would pay attention to what he had to say about the entrenched problems of the time. He wanted to serve as a source of inspiration and a role model for others, so that they could also live with a sense of pride and self-reliance. He consistently tried to live his own life so that he would be a “champion who was accessible to everyone.”
The young Cassius Clay began his boxing career when he was only 12 years old. As the legend has it, someone stole his bicycle, and he told police that he wanted to hang the perpetrator. Instead, the police officer he spoke to convinced him to try out boxing. After watching television programs about the sport, he decided to take up the challenge.
After a few promising years learning his craft, Ali garnered world attention at the Summer Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. He was only 18 years old and still competed under the name Cassius Clay. He handily finished off his first opponent in the 81kg weight division, and went on to win all five rounds in the ring against Gennadiy Shatkov, a Soviet boxer who had won gold in 1956. In the finals, he secured the gold for the United States in the light heavyweight category by defeating another widely respected European champion Olympian, again winning all five rounds.
But when he returned home, the still-vicious racism he saw all around him caused the young champion to angrily throw his gold medal into the Ohio River.
His early years as a professional were marked by sometimes inconsistent performances in the ring, but also by Ali’s boundless charm. He called himself “the Greatest,” and coined numerous poetic catchphrases to describe his athletic perspective. The most famous of these was, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” But that was the time when plenty of fans and commentators noted that the opponents he was consistently beating were far past their prime.
That all changed on February 25, 1964. Cassius Clay went up against defending champion Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title. Liston at that time was the premier boxer in the world, known for his intimidating presence and his powerhouse punch. Ali’s win was instantly recognized as one of the greatest upsets in the history of any sport.
Right after his spectacular success against Liston, Cassius Clay announced his conversion to the Muslim faith, under the controversial teachings of the Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam. His new name was Muhammad Ali. He found in his adopted religion a peaceful and egalitarian alternative to mainstream American society’s entrenched racism.
Until 1967, Ali was unquestionably the dominant figure in boxing. He overpowered Liston again in a 1965 rematch and beat other greats in a list that included Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell.
But in 1967, Ali’s fortunes changed again when he took a then-controversial stand against the Vietnam War. On religious grounds, he refused to be inducted into the army. The consequences were swift. Boxing authorities stripped him of his championship title, and for more than three years he was refused admittance to the ring by every state’s athletic commission. A court sentenced him to five years imprisonment. He remained free on bail, but he remained convicted until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision in 1971.
Comeback and loss
Meanwhile, the case made Ali widely popular among pro-peace activists and others who admired his decision to take a principled stand. In 1970, he returned to boxing, but his skills had deteriorated, and his reflexes were slower. In the 1971 “Fight of the Century,” he lost to reigning heavyweight champ Joe Frazier.
Ali’s up-and-down career from then on featured a string of wins against top-notch opponents. Although Ken Norton broke his jaw in 1973, Ali prevailed in their rematch. And the second Ali-Frazier fight stands as one of Ali’s most notable victories.
In 1974, in the “Rumble in the Jungle” fight against then-champion George Foreman, Ali used his “rope-a-dope” strategy to great effect, basically wearing his opponent down. Ali once again reigned as world heavyweight champion.
He then entered a period in which he was at the height of his popularity, but sliding toward notable physical decline. In 1975, he met Frazier for a third time, in the excessively brutal “Thrilla in Manila” in the 125-degree heat of the Philippines.
Ali won after he pummeled Frazier so badly that the other man’s team called for the match to stop. Years later, the Guardian newspaper would describe this encounter as a “mutual destruction pact.” Both fighters were in the last years of their careers and went after each other with pent-up, destructive fury. Frazier would always resent the way Ali brutalized him verbally as well, particularly since he had stood up for Ali after Ali’s ostracization for refusing the draft.
Although Ali was declared the winner, Frazier’s punches had devastated him in return. He had also reportedly been on the verge of quitting the match, and later said that this was the fight that made him feel the closest to dying he had ever come. The match changed both men profoundly.
Ali lost his title to newcomer Leon Spinks in 1978, then regained it in a rematch half a year later. After retiring in 1979, Ali came back only to suffer a horrendous loss to Larry Holmes and his last to Trevor Berbick. In 1981, Ali hung up his gloves for good.
A man of peace
By then, Parkinson’s disease and brain damage from head injuries were slurring Ali's speech and impeding his movements, but not his intellectual abilities. He publicly renounced the extremist views he had learned as an adherent of the controversial Nation of Islam group, as serious study of the Koran led him to embrace the view that all people are one human family. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990.
In 1998, the United Nations acknowledged Ali’s humanitarian work against apartheid in South Africa by naming him a UN Messenger for Peace. In 2005, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Twenty years before his death in 2016, Ali was invited to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 games in Atlanta. His hands trembled due to the advance of Parkinson’s disease in his body, but his mind and spirit remained unconquerable. At that Olympic games, the International Olympic Committee presented a custom-made replacement gold medal to Ali, out of respect for the immense and lasting effects his sportsmanship and personal example had set for the world.