Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay, 1942) was the only professional boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times. With his outspoken political and religious views he has provided leadership and an example for African American men and women around the world.
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, at Louisville, Kentucky, Muhammad Ali began boxing at the age of 12. A white policeman named Joe Martin featured Ali on his early television show, "Tomorrow's Champions," and started him working out at Louisville's Columbia Gym. An African American trainer named Fred Stoner taught Ali the science of boxing, instructing him to move with the grace and subtlety of a dancer.
"Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee"
Ali built an impressive amateur record which led him to both the national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and Golden Gloves championships. At the age of 18 he competed in the 1960 Olympic games held at Rome, Italy, and won the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. This led to a contract with a twelve member group of millionaires called the Louisville Sponsors Group, the most lucrative contract negotiated by a professional in the history of boxing. He worked his way through a string of professional victories, employing a style that combined speed with devastating punching power, described by one of his handlers as the ability to "float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee."
Ali's flamboyant style of boasting and rhyming and out-spoken self-promotion garnered considerable media attention as he moved toward a chance to contend for the world heavyweight boxing championship. When he began to write poems predicting the outcome of his many bouts he became known by the another name: "The Louisville Lip." Both the attention and his skill as a fighter paid off, and on February 15, 1964, at Miami, Florida, when he was only 22 years old, he fought and defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.
"Beloved of Allah"
Meanwhile Ali, inspired by human rights activist Malcolm X, embraced the Black Muslim faith and announced that he had changed his name to Cassius X. This was at a time when the struggle for civil rights was at a peak and the Muslims had emerged as a controversial but major force in the African American community. Later he was given the name Muhammad Ali, meaning "beloved of Allah," by the Muslim patriarch Elijah Muhammad.
In his first title defense, held at Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965, he defeated the now challenger Sonny Liston with a first round knockout that many called a phantom punch because it was so fast and powerful that few in attendance saw it. Ali successfully defended his title eight more times.
On April 28, 1967, Ali was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. As a Muslim and a conscientious objector he refused to serve, claiming an exemption as a minister of the Black Muslim religion. The press turned against him, calling him "unpatriotic, loudmouthed, bombastic." Although he had not been charged or convicted for violating the Selective Service Act, the New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title in May of 1967. Ali's comment to Sports Illustrated at the time was, "I'm giving up my title, my wealth, may be my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I'll come out stronger than ever." Eventually Ali was sentenced to five years in prison, released on appeal, and his conviction overturned three years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Vindication and Victory
The vindicated Ali returned to the ring in a victorious bout with Jerry Quary in Atlanta in 1971. Four months later he was defeated by Joe Frazier in Manila, who had replaced him as heavyweight champion when the title had been vacated. He regained the championship for the first time when he defeated George Forman (who had beaten Frazier for the title) in a bout held in Zaire in 1974. Ali fought Frazier again in the same year, and in 1975 won both matches and secured his title as the world heavyweight champion. In that year, to welcome Ali back, Sports Illustrated magazine named him their "Sportsman of the Year."
Ali began to employ a new style of boxing, one that he called his "rope-a-dope." He would let his opponents wear themselves down while he rested, often against the ropes; then he would lash out in the later rounds. During his ensuing reign Ali successfully defended his title ten more times. Ali held the championship until he was defeated by Leon Spinks on February 16, 1978, in a bout held in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seven months later, on September 15, 1978, Ali regained the heavyweight title by defeating Spinks in a bout held at New Orleans. Ali thus became the first boxer in history to win the heavyweight championship three times. At the end of his boxing career he was slowed by a neurological condition related to Parkinson's disease. His last fight, the 61st, took place in 1981.
Role as Statesman
As his career wound to a close, Ali became increasingly involved in social causes, diplomacy and politics. He has campaigned for Jimmy Carter and other Democratic political candidates and taken part in the promotion of a variety of political causes addressing poverty and children. He even played the role of diplomat, attempting to secure the release of four kidnapped Americans in Lebanon in 1985. As a result, his image changed from gadfly to highly respected statesman.
At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, the world and his country honored Ali by choosing him to light the Olympic torch during the opening ceremonies.
Further Reading on Muhammad Ali
There are numerous books about Muhammad Ali. Some of the best include Thomas Conklin, Muhammad Ali: The Fight for Respect (1992), Thomas Hauser's three books, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1992), Muhammad Ali in Perspective (1996), and Muhammad Ali: Memories, with photographer Neil Leifer. Other supplementary texts include Barry Denenberg, The Story of Muhammad Ali: Heavyweight Champion of the World (Famous Lives) (1996), The People's Champ (Sport and Society), edited by Elliott J. Gorn (1995), Arlene Schulman, Muhammad Ali: Champion (Newsmakers) (1996), Jack Rummel, Muhammad Ali (Black Americans of Achievement) (1989), William R. Sanford, Carl R. Green, Muhammad Ali (Sports Immortals) (1993), John Stravinsky, Muhammad Ali: Biography (Biographies from A&E) (1997). Outstanding accounts of particular events in Ali's life and career are Norman Mailer's book about the return bout with Forman in Zaire, The Fight (1997), and Suzanne Freedman, Clay v. United States: Muhammad Ali Objects to War (1997). Recent articles on Ali have appeared in The Boston Globe (Oct. 1, 1984, Jan. 17, 1992), Newsweek (June 22, 1987), New York Daily News (Feb. 2, 1989), New York Post (July 14, 1987), New York Times Magazine (July 17, 1988), Philadelphia Inquirer (Aug. 12, 1990), Spin (Oct. 1991), USA Today (Feb. 25, 1994), and Washington Post (June 9, 1991).