Muhammad Ali (1942–)

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, is a three-time heavyweight boxing champion and one of the most culturally significant fighters in American history. He won 56 out of 61 total career fights, 37 by knockout. He went undefeated as a professional fighter from his debut in 1960 until 1971 when he lost to Joe Frazier in what became known as “The Fight of the Century.” He became heavyweight champion of the world at the age of 22, beating Sonny Liston in an upset that rocked the world of professional boxing. He was known for his colorful, brash, pre-match trash talking, and for his speedy, evasive fighting style. His conversion to the Nation of Islam and his evasion of the draft during the Vietnam War made him a cultural icon and a symbol of the protest movement. He is known as “The Greatest” and is considered one of the best fighters in American history.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ali was one of the most visible members of the Nation of Islam (NOI), having been drawn to the group’s strength, racial pride, and the fact that its members, like Ali, did not drink or smoke. The controversial NOI was sometimes hostile, teaching that the black race was superior and that blacks and whites should not integrate. In 1964, the NOI replaced Ali’s birth name, Cassius Clay, with the Islamic holy name of “Muhammad Ali,” a rare honor. Several competitors and members of the press refused to recognize the new name, however. He became an outspoken member of the polarizing group, drawing hostility from many mainstream Americans—both black and white—and inviting controversy into an already colorful career. Later in life, he converted to mainstream Islam.

In 1967, Ali again made headlines for his evasion of the draft, at a time when most of the nation still supported the Vietnam War. He knew little about the Vietnam conflict, admitting in an interview, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” The offhand comment was published in a New York Times article and quickly became notorious. Ali received phone calls and death threats in the article’s aftermath and was vilified by many in the sporting press. He was also admired for speaking out against the war and became a symbol of the burgeoning protest movement. He educated himself on the situation in Vietnam and gave talks on college campuses. He also refused to accept loophole options for his service, such as exhibition fights for the troops or serving in the National Guard.

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, became heavyweight champion of the world at age 22 and was undefeated as a professional fighter for 11 years until he lost to Joe Fra-zier in The Fight of the Century in 1971.

Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay, became heavyweight champion of the world at age 22 and was undefeated as a professional fighter for 11 years until he lost to Joe Frazier in “The Fight of the Century” in 1971. (AP Photo)

Ali’s application for conscientious objector status on religious grounds was denied. He was sentenced to a five-year prison term (not served because the sentence was appealed) and received the maximum allowable fine of $10,000. He was stripped of his title and his boxing license was revoked in several states. His passport was also confiscated, preventing him from boxing abroad. By the time the Supreme Court reversed the decision in 1971, Ali had not fought in three-and-a-half years. He had been 25 and at his physical peak when he first refused the draft. He had risked career, money, fame, and the respect of many whose friends and relatives were fighting in Vietnam. “I was determined,” he said, “to be the one n***** that the white man didn’t get.”

Ali’s prefight ritual created a media circus, adding to the already carnivallike atmosphere that typically surrounded a fight. He would publicly taunt his opponents, bad-mouthing them to the sports media and heckling them in the ring. Before battling Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in 1964, he followed Liston’s car from the airport and taunted him outside his home, calling him a “chump.” Ali would rattle off rhymes about his fighting prowess, including the self-descriptor “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”; he also proclaimed himself “The Greatest” and boasted that he was “pretty,” since he had never taken a disfiguring punch to the face. Some found him charming and amusing. Others, particularly sportswriters, found him disgraceful and arrogant. Among his many nicknames were “The Mighty Mouth” and “The Louisville Lip.”

The sporting press was also initially turned off by Ali’s fighting style. They grumbled that he held his hands too low and did not have a flattening knockout punch like other big fighters. Though he was 6’3”, he was fast. He tended to dance all over the ring, using his legs as much as his fists, until his opponents grew tired and frustrated. He also tended to focus on an opponent’s head rather than emphasizing body shots, which traditional boxing wisdom considered essential. He believed this got inside the head of an opponent more effectively. His trademark style included the “Ali Shuffle” and a strategy he called “rope a dope,” unveiled in his 1974 fight against George Foreman, where he would lay back against the ropes and cover up, absorbing punches in order to tire out the other fighter.

Ali’s fighting career unfolded in a series of epic battles, particularly against Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. He went pro in 1960 at the age of 19, after winning the gold medal against Poland in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. In 1961, he scored his first knockout (when a fighter is unable to get up by the count of 10), and his first technical knockout (TKO) (when someone other than the fighter concludes that the fighter cannot continue). He also began predicting the nature of his victories, including how he would win a fight and in which round.

Ali became the heavyweight champion of the world in 1964 when he beat Sonny Liston in Miami. The fight was a stunning upset, with Liston favored at seven-to-one odds. Ali’s fighting style served him well, with an exhausted Liston withdrawing after the sixth round. Though unproven, evidence suggests that Liston’s handlers may have “juiced” his gloves, applying a substance designed to sting and blind the opponent. Though virtually blind for almost the entire fifth round, Ali’s eyes cleared enough for him to rally. After his victory he proclaimed to his doubters, the press: “I am the king! King of the world! Eat your words!” Liston had trained casually for the fight while Ali, who was not taken seriously at this point, had intensified his regimen. The world was introduced to his flamboyant taunting prefight, as he launched an all-out campaign to unnerve Liston psychologically. At the weigh-in, Ali gibed him so mercilessly that Liston literally thought he was crazy. Ali used this show of unpredictability to outsmart opponents throughout his career.

Ali beat Liston again in a rematch in Lewiston, Maine, on May 25, 1965. Liston was favored at nine-to-one odds, as if Ali’s earlier victory had been a fluke. Less than two minutes into the fight, Ali evaded a left punch from Liston and followed with a quick, short right to Liston’s temple, knocking him out. What came to be known as the “phantom punch” happened so quickly that many in the crowd did not see the punch occur. The outcome was somewhat controversial; Ali did not immediately retreat to a neutral corner as the rules dictated, and the count to 10 was not clear. Rumors flew that Liston had thrown the fight, but an ensuing FBI investigation found no solid evidence to that end.

Ali defended his title for the second time against previous champion Floyd Patterson, in an emotionally charged fight on November 22, 1965, in Las Vegas. Patterson, a darling of the civil rights movement, had spoken out publicly against the NOI for its promotion of hatred and hostility toward whites. Ali was furious, believing Patterson too deferential. He taunted Patterson throughout the fight, seeming to toy with him almost cruelly at times when he could have finished him off. The referee finally called the fight in favor of Ali in the 12th round. From 1966 to 1967, during the draft controversy, Ali won several victories, beating Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, Karl Mildenberger, and Cleveland Williams by TKO at the Houston Astrodome in front of more than 35,000 fans, the largest crowd ever to witness an indoor boxing match. Ali hit Williams over 100 times and allowed only three punches. He next defeated Ernie Terrell in a particularly vicious 15 rounds, and Zora Folley, in his last fight for three and a half years.

In 1970, an eager but slightly rusty Ali defeated Jerry Quarry, then Oscar Bonavena. On March 8, 1971, he suffered his first professional loss, to Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in what came to be known as “The Fight of the Century.” The fight attracted massive amounts of interest and offered an unprecedented $2.5 million purse. Frazier, the current champion, had won a title bout during Ali’s suspension from boxing, but had never beaten Ali. The fight was evenly matched throughout, going a riveting 15 rounds. Frazier was eventually scored the winner and the heavyweight champion; both fighters were taken to the hospital afterward.

From 1971 to 1973, Ali beat several opponents, including Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis, George Chuvalo (again), Jerry Quarry (again), Al Lewis, and Floyd Patterson (again). He lost the second fight of his career to Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw during the fight, though he kept fighting for 10 more rounds.

On January 28, 1974, he won a rematch against Joe Frazier, who had recently lost the heavyweight title to George Foreman. On October 30, 1974, Ali regained the heavyweight title, defeating George Foreman in “The Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire. Foreman was the heavy favorite, having gone undefeated in his 40 professional fights and ending 37 of those in knockouts. In 1975, Ali successfully defended his championship, fighting Joe Frazier for the third time, in what became known as “The Thrilla in Manila,” widely considered one of the greatest and most intense fights of all time. Ali was the victor, beating Frazier by knockout after 14 rounds. Both fighters could barely stand afterward. Ali called the fight the greatest of his career.

Though he went on to earn several more victories, some of his handlers began doubting his ability to continue fighting for much longer. He was aging, and he had taken a severe beating in the third Frazier fight. In 1977, he sustained severe injuries in a fight against Earnie Shavers, and it was discovered that his kidneys were weakening. By 1981, his speech would begin to slur and his reflexes would begin to slow. In 1978, he lost a split decision to the inexperienced Leon Spinks, though he later beat him in a rematch. Ali finally announced his retirement on June 26, 1979. He emerged briefly from retirement the following year, at the age of 38, losing to heavyweight champion Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, though some doctors believed that the symptoms were caused by fighting-induced brain damage.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Cassius Sr. and Odessa Clay. He had a younger brother, Rudolph. Unlike almost every boxer who had come before him, Clay was born into a middle class family. Although Jim Crow was not as severe in Kentucky as it was in the deep South, Ali was deeply troubled by segregation, especially the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, who had been just one year older than he. He said later that he fell into boxing because he saw no other future for himself and figured it to be the most efficient way for a black man to become successful in the United States.

He fell into boxing almost accidentally at the age of 12, when he discovered that his brand new bicycle had been stolen. Furious and eager to fight the thief, he tracked down a police officer, who convinced him to come train instead at the gym he happened to run part-time. Ali won his first fight six weeks later and immediately announced that he would become “the greatest of all time.” He trained with focus and discipline, was described by friends as “charismatic,” and rarely got into trouble. He also suffered from dyslexia and barely graduated from high school. He fought in more than 100 amateur fights with very few losses, winning two Golden Gloves and two national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) titles. He turned pro immediately after the 1960 Olympics.

Ali married former model Sonji Roi in 1964, but the two clashed over what Sonji felt were the NOI’s narrow restrictions, and they divorced just over a year later. Ali married Belinda Boyd, already a practicing Muslim, in 1967. Belinda filed for divorce in 1976 after discovering Ali’s affair with sometime-model Veronica Porsche. He married Veronica in 1977. They divorced in 1986 after Ali’s retirement, and Ali married his caregiver, Yolanda “Lonnie” Williams. All told, Ali sired nine children: Maryum, twins Rasheeda and Jamillah, and Muhammad Jr. (Belinda), Hana, Laila (Veronica), an adopted son, Asaad (Lonnie), and Miya and Khaliah, from extramarital relationships. His daughter Laila went on to become a professional boxer.

In retirement, Ali turned his attention to political and social causes. He met with Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa, and took part in relief missions to Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. In 1990, Ali traveled to Saudi Arabia after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, in hopes of assisting the peace process. Though images of Ali embracing Saddam Hussein were not well received, he was successful in helping to obtain the release of 15 hostages. He also cofounded the Los Angeles Children’s General Assembly, recognized by the United Nations, which promotes children’s involvement in world peace activism; this earned him a co-nomination by the Gandhi Foundation of the United States for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his activism and contributions to sports. In September 2000, the United Nations named Ali a Messenger of Peace.

Also in 2000, Congress passed the Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, intended to prevent exploitation and unethical practices in the sport. Ali organized the annual Celebrity Fight Night to raise money for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute, which opened in 2005, and he participates in the READ 180 program, sponsored by Scholastic, which promotes children’s literacy.

He is coauthor of his autobiography, The Greatest: My Own Story (1975), which was overseen by the Nation of Islam and was made into a 1977 film titled The Greatest, starring Ali as himself. He also released a spoken word album called I Am the Greatest! (1963). He appeared—and sang—in a Broadway musical called Buck White (1969), a documentary film called Black Rodeo (1972), and a television miniseries called Freedom Road (1979). He is also the subject of the Academy Award–winning documentary When We Were Kings (1996), about the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Zaire, and the 2001 film Ali, with Will Smith in the title role.

In 1999, Ali was named sportsman of the century by Sports Illustrated and Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.

—Mariah Gumpert


Ali: The Official Site of Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali Enterprises, LLC, 2008. .

Hauser, Thomas. Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Remnick, David. King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. New York: Random House, 1998.