Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

February 25, 2021 | Black History Month, Flow BLOG

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali
Photo Credit: Gordon Parks/AP

On Feb. 25, 1964, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. fought his first bout against Sonny Liston. 

Liston was the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Clay was the 22-year-old underdog. Clay beat Liston with a technical knockout in the sixth round and proclaimed “I am the greatest! I am the greatest! I’m the king of the world.” 

Within days of the fight, “The King” renounced his slave name and adopted the last name “X”. Soon after he introduced himself to the world as Muhammad Ali. He is considered one of the greatest athletes of the twentieth centuries. 

Ali was born on Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. As a child of the U.S. south, he grew up surrounded by racism and discrimination. 

Fate turned him into a boxer. When Ali was 12, his bike was stolen and he told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief. Martin happened to train young boxers at a local gym. 

Ali started working with Martin and fought his first amateur fight in1954. He won by a split decision. 

Ali went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament as a light heavyweight novice. Three years later he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, and the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title in the light heavyweight division.

Ali earned a spot on the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team and competed against the world in Rome. He won his first three bouts and beat Zbigniew Pietrzkowski of Poland to win the light heavyweight Olympic gold medal.

Ali was heralded as an American hero. But he realized that a gold medal and the label of “hero” could not remove the sting of racism. 

In his 1975 autobiography The Greatest, Ali wrote, “I came back to Louisville after the Olympics with my shiny gold medal. Went into a luncheonette where black folks couldn’t eat. Thought I’d put them on the spot. I sat down and asked for a meal. The Olympic champion wearing his gold medal. They said, “We don’t serve n*****s here.” I said, “That’s okay, I don’t eat ’em.” But they put me out in the street. So I went down to the river, the Ohio River, and threw my gold medal in it.”

Ali turned professional about a month following the Rome Olympics. Then came a string of wins until the fight against Liston in 1964. 

Ali used his mouth as well as his abilities to showcase his prowess and told reporters he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in the boxing ring. He often taunted his opponents before, during and after a fight. Some of his memorable fights were against Joe Frazier, Floyd Patterson, and George Foreman. 

On Nov. 22, 1965, Patterson wanted to put the younger Ali in his place. Unfortunately, Patterson’s bad back had other ideas. The referee stopped the fight in the 12th round and Ali was pronounced winner. 

Ali next met Patterson on Sept. 20, 1972 at Madison Square Garden in N.Y. The two boxers were fighting for the National American Boxing Federation title. Ali, defending his title, cut Patterson above his left eye in the sixth round. By the end of the seventh the eye was swollen shut and the referee ended the fight. Patterson retired from boxing a short time after the fight. 

Ali and Frazier met three times in the ring. Their first encounter, billed as the “Fight of the Century,” was in 1971. Ali and Frazier danced toe to toe for 14 rounds before Frazier dropped Ali with a vicious left hook in the 15th. Ali recovered, but the judges ruled for Frazier. This was Ali’s first professional loss after 31 wins. 

Ali beat Frazier in their 1974 rematch before they locked gloves in 1975 in the “Thrilla in Manilla”. Ali won after the 14th round when Frazier’s trainer threw in the towel. Ali and Frazier became good friends later in life. 

George Foreman was another victim of Ali’s unbelievable boxing skill. In the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, Ali used his unorthodox “rope-a-dope” technique to beat the heat and Foreman. Ali beat the undefeated heavyweight champion with a knockout in the eighth round.  

Ali’s boxing was interrupted by a stint in prison for civil disobedience.

In 1967 Ali was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. He refused to serve, arguing that he had “no quarrel” with America’s enemy, the Vietcong. 

“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big powerful America, and shoot them for what?” Ali said in an interview. “They never called me n****r. They never lynched me. They didn’t put no dogs on me.”

When Ali appeared at the Army recruiting station, he refused to step forward when his name was called. He was stripped of his boxing title, convicted of draft evasion, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Ali was released from prison and appealed his conviction. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction in a unanimous decision in 1971. 

Ali was also suspended from boxing for refusing military service. He did not box again in a match that counted until 1970. 

Ali retired on June 27, 1979 but re-entered the ring in 1980. He lost his final two professional fights before retiring in 1981. His final record was 56 wins and 5 losses with 37 knockouts.

Only three years later, in 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. 

“I’m in no pain,” he said in an interview. “A slight slurring of my speech, a little tremor. Nothing critical. If I was in perfect health — if I had won my last two fights — if I had no problem, people would be afraid of me. Now they feel sorry for me. They thought I was Superman. Now they can go, ‘He’s human, like us. He has problems.’ ”

In his retirement, Ali supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish-Foundation. He also advocated for increased funding for Parkinson’s Disease research and in 1997 helped establish the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center.

In 1996, Ali, visibly suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic flame at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) replaced his 1960 gold medal during a U.S. vs. Yugoslavia basketball game. The IOC President at the time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, presented Ali with a gold medal. 

In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. 

Ali died on June 3, 2016, in Phoenix, Arizona. He was 74 years old.

Ali had planned his own memorial services, saying he wanted to be, “Inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that want to pay their respects to me,” according to a family spokesman. 

Ali is remembered today not just for his mastery in the ring, but also for his activism and his big heart. 


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