Muhammad Ali "The Greatest"
Born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., Muhammad Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964. Ali was a professional boxer and social activist. He was the first fighter to win the world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions. Nicknamed "The Greatest", Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches and defended his title 19 times. As an amateur, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Citing his religious beliefs, Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army at the height of the war in Vietnam on April 28th 1967.
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. He was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who was named for the 19th century abolitionist and politician Cassius Clay.
At the age of 12, Cassius Clay discovered his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. His bike was stolen, and Clay told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief. "Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people," Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym.
Cassius Clay started working with Martin to learn how to box, and soon began his boxing career. In his first amateur bout in 1954, he won the fight by split decision. Clay went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves Championship for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, Cassius Clay won the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions and the Amateur Athletic Union's national title for the light-heavyweight division.
At the age of eighteen Cassius Clay competed in the 1960 Olympic games held in Rome, Italy, winning the gold medal in the light-heavyweight division. Cassius Clay stated in his 1975 autobiography that he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a 'whites-only' restaurant, and fighting with a white gang. Whether this is true is still debated, although he was given a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
Cassius Clay's Gold Medal led to a contract with a group of millionaires called the Louisville Sponsors Group. It was the biggest contract ever signed by a professional boxer. Ali worked his way through a series of professional victories, using a style that Standing tall, at 6-ft, 3-in, Clay had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. Rather than the normal style of carrying the hands high to defend the face, he instead combined foot speed with great punching power. He was described by one of his handlers as having the ability to "float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee."
From 1960 to 1963, the young Clay amassed a record of 19–0, with 15 knockouts. Clay built a reputation by correctly predicting the round in which he would "finish" several opponents, and by boasting before his triumphs. Cassius Clay admitted he adopted the latter practice from "Gorgeous" George Wagner, a popular professional wrestling champion in the Los Angeles area who drew thousands of fans. Often referred to as "the man you loved to hate," George could incite the crowd with a few heated remarks, and Ali followed suit.
Clay became the top contender for Sonny Liston's title. Despite his impressive record, however, he was not widely expected to defeat the champ. The fight was scheduled for February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida, but was nearly canceled when the promoter, Bill Faversham, heard that Clay had been seen around Miami and in other cities with the controversial Malcolm X, a member of The Nation of Islam. During the weigh-in on the day before the bout, the ever-boastful Clay declared that he would "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," and, summarizing his strategy for avoiding Liston's assaults, said, "Your hands can't hit what your eyes can't see." In the opening rounds, Clay's speed kept him away from Liston's powerful head and body shots, as he used his height advantage to beat Liston to the punch with his own lightning-quick jab. By the sixth, Clay was looking for a finish and dominated Liston. Then, Liston shocked the boxing world when he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, stating he had a shoulder injury. At the end of the fight, Clay boasted to the press that doubted him before the match, proclaiming, "I shook up the world!" At just 22 Cassius Clay Clay was the youngest boxer ever to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion.
Inspired by Muslim spokesman Malcolm X, Cassius Clay began to follow the Black Muslim faith. Later the Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad gave him the name Muhammad Ali, which means "beloved of Allah."
In his first title defense in May 1965 Ali defeated Sonny Liston with a first-round knockout as a result of what came to be called the "phantom punch." Many believe that Liston, possibly as a result of threats from Nation of Islam extremists, or in an attempt to "throw" the fight to pay off debts, waited to be counted out. Others, however, discount both scenarios and insist that it was a quick, chopping Ali punch to the side of the head that legitimately felled Liston. Ali successfully defended his title eight more times.
In April 1967 Muhammad Ali was drafted into military service during the Vietnam War. Ali claimed that as a minister of the Black Muslim religion he was not obligated to serve. The press criticized him as unpatriotic, and the New York State Athletic Commission and World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his heavyweight title. Muhammad Ali told Sports Illustrated, "I'm giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I'll come out stronger than ever." Ali was finally sentenced to five years in prison but was released on appeal, and his conviction was thrown out three years later by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Muhammad Ali returned to the ring and beat Jerry Quarry in 1970. Five months later he lost to Joe Frazier, who had replaced him as heavyweight champion when his title had been stripped. Ali regained the championship for the first time when he defeated George Foreman, who had beaten Frazier for the title, in a fight held in Zaire in 1974. Muhammad Ali referred to this match as the "Rumble in the Jungle." Ali fought Frazier several more times, including a fight in 1974 staged in New York City and a bout held in the Philippines in 1975, which Ali called the "Thrilla in Manila." Ali won both matches to regain his title as the world heavyweight champion. In 1975 Sports Illustrated magazine named Ali its "Sportsman of the Year."
Ali now used 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 lashing out in the later rounds. Ali successfully defended his title ten more times. He held the championship until Leon Spinks defeated him in February 1978 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Seven months later Ali regained the heavyweight title by defeating Spinks in New Orleans, Louisiana, becoming the first boxer in history to win the heavyweight championship three times. At the end of his boxing career Muhammad Ali was slowed by Parkinson's disease. Fighting for a total of 61 fights, Muhammad Ali's last fight took place in 1981. He passed away June 3, 2016.