Muhammad Ali was a fighter all his life, both in and out of the ring. He initially found fame as a champion boxer, celebrated for his unorthodox ring style and witty talk before, during, and after fights.
But Ali’s charisma and commitment to social and political causes saw him transcend boxing to become one of the most famous people on the planet, at a time when black people lacked basic civil rights in America. Discover how Ali became a modern icon. Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay Jr in Louisville, Kentucky. His father was a sign painter and his mother a part-time cook and cleaner for wealthy families. Although they lived in a middle-class black neighbourhood, Kentucky law enforced a code of racial segregation that precluded black people from using many of the same public facilities as their white neighbours. The indignities forced on Clay and his family, as well as national outrages such as the racially-motivated murder of 14-yea rold Emmett Till in 1955, deeply troubled Clay from an early age.
When Clay was 12 years old, his parents bought him a bike for his birthday. It was stolen while he was at a local fair. Furious, Clay went to report the theft to a local policeman named Joe Martin. Martin was a boxing instructor as well as an officer. As Clay threatened to find and beat up the thief, Martin suggested he learn how to fight before dishing out threats. Martin became Clay’s first trainer. Clay soon won an array of titles on the amateur boxing circuit under Martin’s guidance.
At 18, Clay qualified for the Olympics in Rome. He charmed the world media and proved popular among his fellow athletes. He proved himself in the ring too, winning gold as a light-heavyweight.
Clay was famously proud of his medal, wearing it constantly during his stay in Italy and on his return to the United States. He was honoured with a victory parade in his home town of Louisville but was later refused service in a whites-only diner and other public facilities. The segregation laws still applied to him – Olympic champion or not.
Eight weeks after his victory in Rome, Clay won his first professional bout. All the trademarks of his unorthodox style were on display. Clay had immense confidence in his speed and agility, often leaving his guard down and leaning back to avoid punches. Clay’s showmanship was also evident in early bouts, as he dazzled media and fans with his bravado and predicted the round in which his fights would end. He faced tough opponents, including popular Englishman Henry Cooper, who knocked him down with a powerful left hook. But Clay maintained an unblemished ring record. He would soon prove himself against his toughest opponent yet.
Up next was world heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Liston was the 7-to-1 betting favourite over Clay. Clay caused chaos at the weigh-in, lunging at Liston and yelling as the press looked on in disbelief. Many wrote him off as a madman and Liston was confident his power and experience would be enough to defeat the young upstart. But that night, Clay used deft footwork and impressive hand speed to outpace his opponent, inflicting cuts under Liston’s eyes. After the sixth round, Liston retired claiming an injured shoulder. Clay had beaten the odds to become heavyweight champion of the world.
Speculation about Clay’s religious beliefs had been fuelled by his relationship with black civil rights leader and Nation of Islam member Malcolm X. After defeating Liston, Clay publicly acknowledged he was a member of the religious movement. In March, he was given the name Muhammad Ali by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. Ali accepted the group’s controversial doctrine, including a call for apartheid between the races. It made him a pariah in some circles but, for many, he was a symbol of black pride, refusing to play the role of the ‘compliant negro’ in order to gain acceptance from the white establishment.
In 1964, Cassius Clay “shook up the world” by defeating Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. Liston’s loss was put down to overconfidence, injury or a possible mafia fix. The 1965 rematch (with Clay now going by the name Muhammad Ali) was to prove equally controversial. The bout lasted a mere 100 seconds as Liston fell to an Ali punch delivered with such speed, many at ringside missed it. Accusations swirled that Liston ‘took a dive’ to satisfy mafia gambling debts, or in response to Nation of Islam threats. Neither was proven, and opinion remained divided over whether it was a fix.
As war unfolded in Vietnam, Ali received a notice drafting him into the US Army. His next fight would be in a courtroom, rather than a boxing ring. Ali objected to serving in the military because of his religious beliefs. He also referenced the mistreatment of black Americans, saying he refused to co-operate with the US government in oppressing another race of people. He was stripped of his championship, indicted for draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. But he did not serve time and his conviction was overturned on appeal. At this time, Ali toured colleges and spoke out on various social and political issues.
In 1970, Ali returned to boxing, knocking out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. Next up was Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion.
Frazier and Ali clashed over more than just the title. To Frazier’s dismay, the two men became symbols and proxy warriors for opposing social, political, and religious beliefs. Ali, an outspoken advocate of black self-realisation, dismissed Fraizer in pre-fight interviews as an ‘Uncle Tom’. Their fight at Madison Square Garden was watched by millions of people in America and around the world. Frazier won a unanimous 15-round decision – it was Ali’s first professional loss.
Ali had a chance to reclaim his title in Zaire against a new world champion: the hard-hitting heavyweight George Foreman. Again, Ali entered the ring as a 3-to-1 underdog. But in front of 80,000 fans, he unveiled a new tactic – the ‘rope-a-dope’. Leaning back against the ropes, Ali avoided most punches to the head and absorbed punishing body blows before counter-attacking with straight right hands. In the middle rounds, Foreman tired. In round eight, Ali launched a powerful combination that knocked the champion to the canvas. “Oh my God,” said BBC commentator Harry Carpenter, “he’s won the world title back at 32.”
Ali’s victory over Foreman reinforced his position as the most recognisable person on the planet. His famous fans included Elvis, Bertrand Russell and Nelson Mandela. In an effort to heal rifts caused by the war in Vietnam and racial divisions within the United States, President Gerald Ford invited him to the White House in December 1974. Then, in 1975, Ali abandoned Nation of Islam teachings in favour of orthodox Islam.
He has since declared, “Colour doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count.” It had been 21 months since Ali won a low-key rematch against Joe Frazier in New York. Their rivalry stood at one win each. Ali’s womanizing became a sub-plot to the bout after he brought his mistress to a reception at the presidential palace in Manila. Meanwhile, tensions between Ali and Frazier were running higher than ever, as Ali continued to goad his opponent in public.
He branded Frazier ‘a gorilla’. The fight lasted a punishing 14 rounds. Ali prevailed when Frazier’s corner halted the brutal back-and-forth carnage. Ali later described the fight as “the closest thing to death” he’d ever experienced. After Manila, Ali defended his championship six times before his loss to Leon Spinks, a largely untested fighter with seven pro fights to his credit. Seven months later, in September 1978, he defeated Spinks in a rematch to claim the heavyweight crown for an unprecedented third time. After a brief retirement, Ali made an illadvised comeback against Larry Holmes. Ali failed to go the distance and was pulled out of the fight by his trainer after the tenth round. He retired permanently at age 40 with a ring record of 56 wins and five losses.
Ali was not a diplomat but he was enlisted into diplomatic causes by the US government due to his popularity at home and abroad. In 1980, President Carter sent Ali to Africa to gather support for a US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics. But the mission offended many African leaders and was widely considered to be a diplomatic failure. In 1990, Ali went to Iraq on his own accord to help negotiate the release of American hostages captured after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Fifteen hostages were released, aided by Ali’s profile. In the early 1980s, Ali developed noticeable tremors and slurs in his speech. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Ali’s physicians linked his condition to the repeated blows to the head sustained during his boxing career. Ali, however, has stated that he does not believe his condition is caused by boxing. In the ensuing years, Ali became a visible symbol of courage in the face of physical disability and helped raise millions of dollars for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center.
Throughout his retirement, Ali has devoted himself to humanitarian work and charitable causes. Many of Ali’s most high profile fights were staged in developing countries, partly in a bid to shine a global spotlight on them. He continued to make trips as a goodwill ambassador to troubled nations, such as North Korea and Afghanistan, and delivered $1m of medical supplies to Cuba. In 1990, Ali met Nelson Mandela in Los Angeles, paying his respects to a fellow advocate of civil rights and political freedom
In the summer of 1996, a trembling Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta. His appearance generated a worldwide outpouring of love, reaffirming his status as an iconic symbol of tolerance, understanding and courage. In 1999, in acknowledgement of his humanitarian work in impoverished countries, Ali was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. A Hollywood movie starring Will Smith dramatising his life and career was released in 2001. Ali made a number of public appearances to promote the film.
Ali has been the recipient of a myriad of honours, in appreciation of his lifelong fight for civil rights and religious freedoms. In 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour that can be bestowed on a civilian in America. Although he did not speak, Ali’s sense of humour was still on full display. When President Bush threw a mock punch at the former champion, Ali twirled a finger round his head to indicate he would be crazy to take him on in a fight. That same year saw the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, a non-profit museum celebrating Ali’s life and achievements.
Over 50 years after his first attendance at the Olympic Games in Rome, Ali made a poignant return to the world stage. At the 2012 Olympics in London, Ali was designated as an honorary flag bearer. Although his frail physical condition prevented him from carrying the flag, he stood for part of the ceremony with the support of his wife, Lonnie. Ali’s appearance was rapturously received by fans in the packed stadium and around the world. It was a fitting tribute to one of the greats of sporting history whose remarkable life transcended the ropes of the boxing ring.
Muhammad Ali was a legendary boxer and one of the greats of sporting history. His impact was felt far beyond the confines of the boxing ring. He lost some of the best years of his sporting career after refusing, on principle, to fight for America in the Vietnam War. Beyond the ring, he will be remembered for his belief in social justice and support for Black civil rights. Truly a cultural icon, Ali’s passion, skill, intelligence and wit gave him a global appeal unmatched by few, if any, other sporting figures and inspired millions.
Louisville says goodbye to its golden son The superlatives had been exhausted; A legend. An inspiration. The fastest. The prettiest. And as he tirelessly, and playfully, pronounced until the bitter end, the Greatest. All that remained was for Muhammad Ali to be laid to rest.
In the somehow fitting setting of the KFC-YUM sports arena named after Kentucky’s second most famous son, Colonel Sanders, an unlikely collection of dignitaries gathered on Friday for an interfaith funeral service, to bid farewell to the greatest sporting personality of his, or any other time, and a man who in his pomp was inarguably the most famous person on the planet. Battered but proud former World Champions, of course. Former president Bill Clinton. Naturally. Black suited, bow-tied emissaries from the Nation of Islam.
We understand. And Billy Crystal – an old and dear friend, apparently. Ali, who spent his later years silenced by the degenerative brain condition Parkinson’s began planning his funeral some years ago, insisting on an open and inclusive service, and more than 18,000 thousand people had gathered to pay their last respects.
“My father wanted it in an arena so everybody can come and be there,” his daughter Laila had said. ‘Trust me, if ten million people come that’s not going to be enough for him. He’s going to be like ‘That’s it?’”
It was a ceremony presided over by a Muslim imam, with a list of speakers that included a Catholic priest, an American Indian chief, and two Rabbis, with eulogies from Mr Clinton, Crystal, Ali’s wife Lonnie, who entered on Mr Clinton’s arm, and two of his daughters, Maryum Ali and Rasheda Ali-Walsh.
On the streets of Louisville, everywhere you looked there was Ali, on posters and signs, the flags at half-mast. On the day his casket was flown into his home, at the Muhammad
Ali Centre, where mourners had gathered, thousands of bees had swarmed, it was said, in nature’s own tribute. In The Freedom Hall, a vast exhibition space, more often used for car and horse shows than Islamic prayer services, some 10,000 had gathered, of all creeds, colours and ages, the mood, as Ali himself had wished, of brother and sisterhood.
“Ali is the property of all people, but never forget he is the product of black people”- Kevin Cosby, Louisville pastor
The chanting had stopped. Now a steel service door cranked open and a procession entered, the coffin, shrouded in a black cloth with gold Islamic lettering, borne on the shoulders of, improbably, the former Cat Stevens and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. The crowd surged forward, twenty deep against the crash barrier, a sea of mobile phones held aloft, as the coffin was placed on a dais, behind a praetorian guard of impassive-faced Kentucky State troopers in grey Stetsons.
After the prayers, a speaker extolled ‘the majesty that was Muhammad, his ‘calming embrace… “He gave us an identity; he inspired us; he built us up. Ali made being a Muslim dignified.
Ali made being made a Muslim relevant. If you are an American, black or white, Ali is part of your history and you should be proud. Ali put the question of whether you could be a Muslim and an American to rest. Let us hope that question is interred with his remains.” The State Troopers stared out into the crowd. At the memorial service in the KFC-YUM centre, the first speaker, a Louisville pastor, Kevin Cosby, spoke of how, in the time of the Civil Rights struggle Ali had embodied the change spoken of by Martin Luther King from ‘nobodyness’ to ‘somebodyness’. “Before James Brown said I’m black and I’m proud, Muhammad Ali said ‘I’m black and I’m pretty’,” said Cosby, the huge crowd responding with the fervour of a tent revival meeting. “Ali is the property of all people, but never forget he is the product of black people.” A few hours before Friday’s memorial service, the funeral cortege – every stretch limo in the state, it seemed, bearing champions: Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson among them - had passed through the streets of Louisville, lined with crowds – black people, all people, chanting his name – ‘Ali! Ali Ali’. An elderly black man stood beside me, cloudy-eyed.
“He is the only man in the whole world that could have people come from all over the world to say goodbye to him. This would make him very happy.”
The courtege drove on, to the Cave Mill Cemetery, a tranquil, sylvan setting in the expensive part of town. Born on the poor side, buried on the rich side, Louisville’s shining son.
“Muhammad Ali always said that his life would begin when he left planet Earth,” the elderly man said to me. “He wasn’t afraid of leaving...” His daughter Laila had it differently. “He definitely wouldn’t want to just move on. But we’re not in control. Obviously, God is in control.”