Muhammad Ali famously claims that he is the greatest, and, by many standards, he is. But few know that the destiny of this boxer who could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee," was set in motion by a bicycle thief!
I would say things like 'I am the greatest! I'm pretty! If you talk jive, you'll drop in five! I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I'm pretty!' When white people heard me talking like this, some said, 'That black man talks too much. He's bragging.'
Muhammad Ali was born as Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his father were both named in honor of a nineteenth-century abolitionist who had emancipated 40 slaves after inheriting them from his father.
Cassius Clay's Methodist father painted billboards and signs for a living, and his Baptist mother was a household domestic. Clay was raised as a Baptist in the segregated South.
When Cassius Clay was a young boy of 12, his red-and-white Schwinn bicycle was stolen. He told a policeman that he wished he could beat up the thief. That policeman, Joe E. Martin, happened to be a boxing coach in his spare time, and he advised the youngster that he should learn to box before going after the thief.
Boxing fans the world over should thank that bicycle thief for changing the course of Cassius Clay's life - for only six weeks after the bicycle theft, the 89-pound boy won his first boxing match.
Clay fought in the Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class, and in 1959 won the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions. It was at this time that he heard about the Nation of Islam, which would greatly influence his faith and beliefs.
Clay won a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, as a light heavyweight. Shortly after returning to the States, Clay was refused service in a "whites only" restaurant. He has claimed that he threw his gold medal into the Ohio River in disgust, but some of his close associates say this story is untrue.
In any event, when he lit the torch to open the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996, he was given a replacement medal.
Clay turned professional after the Olympics. He later said, "When I won the Golden Gloves in 1960, that made me realize I had a chance. And when I won at the Olympics, that sealed it: I was the champ."
Cassius Clay's first professional fight took place on October 29, 1960. He won a 6-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. In 1962 he beat his former trainer, Archie Moore.
In 1963 Clay fought against Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden. Clay staggered in the first round but ultimately claimed victory in a unanimous decision. The crowd was not happy - people booed and threw debris into the ring. The event was later dubbed the "Fight of the Year."
Around this time Clay began his now-famous self-promotion to the press, rather than letting his manager speak for him. His braggadocio style was inspired by professional wrestler "Gorgeous George" Wagner. "I am the greatest," he said. "I said that even before I knew I was."
He released a spoken-word album, "I Am the Greatest," in 1963, featuring his poetry and background music, plus two songs, including a cover of Ben E. King's classic, "Stand by Me."
Clay's interest in Islam grew, and he became friendly with Malcolm X. He decided to join the Nation of Islam, then led by Elijah Muhammad, even though some members of the NOI disapproved of Clay because boxing is a violent sport. The Detroit-founded group, seen by some as radical, rejected integration, celebrated black pride and black nationalism and encouraged African Americans to rely on other African Americans for social and economic support.
The "Miami Herald" broke the story that Clay was a member of the Nation of Islam shortly before his scheduled fight with the then-reigning Heavyweight Champion, Sonny Liston. The fight was nearly canceled.
However, at the age of 22, on February 25, 1964, Cassius Clay became the youngest man to take the Heavyweight Championship from a reigning champ. The odds had been against him, at 7-1, but he defeated Liston in a TKO - technical knockout - when Liston's manager stopped the fight due to injuries.
Interestingly, Clay earned $630,000 for defeating Liston, but about 50 years later he sold his winning gloves to an unknown buyer for even more - $836,000.
Saying Goodbye to Cassius Clay
After Clay became the new Heavyweight Champion, members of the NOI were more receptive to having him join their group. The day after the Liston fight, Clay announced his new name would be Cassius X, with the X representing the unknown name that had been taken from his ancestors by slave owners. This news caused an uproar, particularly among white boxing fans.
In March of 1964, Elijah Muhammad of NOI gave the former Cassius Clay his new and iconic name, Muhammad Ali. Ali later explained, "The name Muhammad is the most common name in the world. In all the countries around the world - Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon - there are more Muhammads than anything else. When I joined the Nation of Islam and became a Muslim, they gave me the most famous name because I was the champ."
Not long after Ali joined the NOI, Malcolm X broke away from the group. Experiences with Muslims abroad had led Malcolm X to the conclusion that all races should and could live together in harmony, and this did not fit with the separatist views of Elijah Muhammad. Ali was forced to choose between the NOI and Malcolm X; he chose the NOI but later expressed great regret over losing his friendship with Malcolm X. He never had the chance to make amends, due to the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965.
Regarding the philosophy of the NOI, Ali later said, "The Nation of Islam's main focus was teaching black pride and self-awareness. Why should we keep trying to force ourselves into white restaurants and schools when white people didn't want us? Why not clean up our own neighborhoods and schools instead of trying to move out of them and into white people's neighborhoods?"
Even though the NOI was labeled by some as a separatist hate religion, especially regarding whites, Muhammad Ali maintained professional and personal relationships with many white people.
In May of 1965 Ali faced a rematch with Liston. In a controversial fight that lasted less than 2 minutes, Ali was declared the winner by knockout. Some thought Liston went down on purpose, either due to threats from the NOI or because he had bet against himself to pay off some personal debts.
In his second defense of his title, Ali faced Floyd Patterson, a former champ. Ali taunted him before and during the fight, because he thought Patterson had insulted his religion. Ali won a TKO victory after 12 rounds.
Conscientious Objector or Draft Dodger?
In 1964, Ali, while still known as Cassius Clay, had failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test, due to his poor reading and spelling skills. He commented, "The fact is, I was never too bright in school. I ain't ashamed of it, though. I mean, how much do school principals make a month?" The rules were changed in 1966, however, and Muhammad Ali was deemed eligible for the draft.
Ali announced that he did not approve of the Vietnam War, that no one over there had done him any harm, and that he would not serve. He later explained, "I didn't want to submit to the army and then, on the day of judgment, have God say to me, 'Why did you do that?' This life is a trial, and you realize that what you do is going to be written down for Judgment Day."
In April of 1967, Ali refused to step forward when his name was called at Houston's Military Entrance Processing Station. He was later arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. The case went to appeal and Ali ultimately served no jail time, but in the three-and-a-half-year interim, he faced the scorn of many Americans and was stripped of his heavyweight title. He also lost his boxing license and his passport, and even the NOI abandoned him.
Showing strong character and resourcefulness, Ali found new ways to support his family and share his message with the world. He spoke at colleges, protesting the Vietnam War and advocating racial equality. He later said, "My lectures, based on Islamic teachings, were on various subjects. Some of the titles were, 'The Intoxication of Life,' 'The Purpose of Life,' 'The Real Cause of Man's Distress,' 'The Journey to the Goal in Life,' and, one of my favorites, 'The Heart of Man.' They contained important insights that spoke to something deep inside me."
In 1969 Ali starred in a Broadway musical, "Buck White." Reviews were not bad, especially for Ali's performance, but the show closed after four nights and seven performances. During his forced hiatus from boxing, he also opened a restaurant called Champ Burgers.
As Ali's appeals made their way up to the Supreme Court, public opinion against the Vietnam War increased. In 1971 the Supreme Court overturned Ali's conviction in a unanimous decision, on a technicality, with Thurgood Marshall abstaining.
In 1970, with his court case still in appeal, Ali finally returned to the ring. The City of Atlanta granted him a license to box, and in October he won two fights, against Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena, making him the top contender to challenge Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier.
The match between Ali and Frazier, dubbed the "Fight of the Century," took place on March 8, 1971, and was broadcast to 36 countries. Both men were undefeated in their professional careers. The fight was even in early rounds, then Ali showcased his new "rope-a-dope" strategy, in which he rested against the ropes and allowed his opponent to hit him repeatedly. Then, when Frazier was tired, Ali attacked. Nevertheless, Ali lost this fight by unanimous decision.
Ali's second professional defeat came in 1973, when Ken Norton broke his jaw.
Regaining the Heavyweight Championship
On October 30, 1974, Ali sought to regain his title as World Heavyweight Champion in a fight against George Foreman. Prior to the event, Ali said, "You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned? Wait till I whup George Foreman's behind." The fight, called the "Rumble in the Jungle," took place in Zaire at 4 A.M. local time, so that Americans could watch the match on live television. Although most experts thought Foreman would win, Ali was victorious by knockout in the eighth round, winning the heavyweight championship for the second time.
After falling out with the NOI, Ali converted to Sunni Islam, a more mainstream group, in 1975.
In October of 1975, Ali and Frazier were scheduled to meet again, in Manila, in a fight dubbed the "Thrilla in Manila." Prior to the fight, Ali taunted, "Joe Frazier is so ugly that when he cries, the tears turn around and go down the back of his head," and, "It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller, when I get the gorilla in Manila." During the fight Ali strategically employed his "rope-a-dope" technique, hanging back and then delivering a number of sharp blows. He won the fight by technical knockout because Frazier's eyes were swollen shut.
Retirement and Parkinson's Disease
By 1977, age and medical problems started to catch up with Muhammad Ali. Following a difficult win against Earnie Shavers, Ali was warned by his longtime doctor that his kidneys were failing and he should retire. Ali ignored the warning, then suffered defeat against Leon Spinks in 1978.
Ali rallied once again, winning the World Heavyweight Champion title by unanimous decision for an unprecedented third time in a rematch against Spinks. That fight broke attendance records.
By 1979, long before Ali announced that he had Parkinson's disease, his symptoms were becoming evident. Larry Holmes defeated him twice, in 1979 and 1980, then in 1981 Trevor Berbick defeated him in what would be his final fight.
Ali publicly acknowledged his battle with Parkinson's disease in 1984, and has steadfastly denied any connection between boxing and the nervous system disorder: "No boxer in the history of boxing has had Parkinson's. There's no injury in my brain that suggests that the illness came from boxing."
Over the years Ali married four times. His fourth wife, Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams, had been his friend since 1964, from his early days in Louisville.
From his marriages and other relationships, Ali has seven daughters and four sons. One daughter, Laila, is a boxing champion in her own right. Another daughter, Rasheda, wrote a book for children about Parkinson's disease, titled "I'll Hold Your Hand So You Won't Fall."
Since retiring from the ring, Ali has focused on a mission of peace and charity. As he once said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." He worked to gain release of the Iranian Hostages in 1990, and he has raised funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, Special Olympics, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation. In 2005 he embraced Sufi Islam.
Honors over the years include being named Kentucky Athlete of the Century, "Sports Illustrated" Sportsman of the Century, and the BBC Sports Personality of the Century; earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; being appointed as the United Nations' Messenger of Peace; receiving the Presidential Citizen's Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom; being named the first Honorary Freeman of Ennis, Ireland, in honor of his Irish great-grandfather; receiving the NAACP President's Award; and being the first boxer featured on a Wheaties cereal box.
His opulent book, "GOAT: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali," is 792 pages and 75 pounds, decorated with silk and Louis Vuitton leather, containing over half a million words and more than 3,000 images. One thousand signed copies sold for $7,500 each; nine thousand other copies sold for $3,000. His company, G.O.A.T., LLC, stands for "Greatest of All Time."
So there is quite a case to be made that Muhammad Ali is the greatest. He not only triumphed in the boxing ring, but also promoted peace and racial equality, preached about the positivity of Islam, and served as an inspiration for many with Parkinson's disease and other debilitating conditions.
As recently as 2014 Ali has made public appearances, even though he has all but lost the ability to speak. As he said in his autobiography, "The Soul of a Butterfly," co-written with daughter Hana Yasmeen, "There are thousands of people around the world diagnosed with Parkinson's and other illnesses every day. I know that a lot of them look up to me for guidance; they count on me to be strong. Knowing this gives me some of the strength I need to keep going. It is one of the reasons I continue traveling, and making appearances around the world."