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Friday, December 1, 2023

Muhammad Ali – The Boxer Who Ruled the Ring


Birth and Early Life of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, and his real name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr, was a sign and billboard painter and the name of his mother was Odessa O’Grady Clay, a domestic helper.

Cassius Jr. went to central high school in Louisville. He was suffering from dyslexia and reading and writing, was a difficult task for him.

He grew up facing racial discrimination and it was a really hard time for him. And these experiences sparked his interest in boxing.

At the age of twelve, when he lost his bike he told the concerned police officer, Joe Martin that he wanted to beat the thief.

That event became a deciding moment in his life. Joe Martin was a gym trainer who trained boxers. He advised Cassius to learn to fight first.

Then, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1954, he fought and won his first amateur fight and it took just six weeks from the time he started his training.

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Early boxing career of Muhammad Ali

Muhhammad Ali expressing vigor in black & white image

He was 6’3” in height and Ali adopted a different boxing style. Instead of carrying the hands high to defend the face, he relied on his feet to quickly move and avoid a punch.

On October 29, 1960, he won his first professional fight. In the game held in Louisville, he won the game in a six-round decision.

During 1960-63, he won games with a record 19-0 and among them, 15 were knock-outs. In those games, he defeated many senior and prominent boxers.

Muhamad Ali won the controversial 10 round fight in the year 1963. Then it got the name “ Fight of the year”. In the match, his opponent Dough Jones staggered him as soon as the fight started.

In the next fight with Henry Cooper, the match was stopped in the 5th round. It was because of a deep cut Cooper got on his face. But, earlier in the fourth round, Cooper knocked Ali down with a left hook.

Vietnam War

Muhhammad ali in action in black & white image

Due to his poor writing and spelling skills, he failed in the armed forces qualifying test in 1964. But in the year 1966, the administration revised the tests. And he got the classification 1A.

He said, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Koran. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” and refused to serve in the US army during the Vietnam War.

Ali also said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong” and “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.”

He stated that Clay was the name of his slave ancestors and the white man gave the name. And he refused to respond to the name Cassius Clay.

Ali fought a match with Liston in 1965. And in between the event and the match with Zora Folley in 1967, he defended his title nine times. Playing so many matches in a short duration itself was a rare feat.

On March 29, 1966, The boxer Ernie Terrell, backed out from the match in Toronto. But, Ali won a 15-round game against the substitute opponent George Chuvalo.

He then went to England and defeated Henry Cooper and Brian London. In his next fight against the German Karl Mildenberger, Ali stopped him in the 12th round and it became one of the toughest fights in his life.

In November 1966, Ali fought with Williams in the Houston Astrodome. Earlier, a year and a half before, William suffered a close-range gunshot and lost a kidney. Ali defeated him in three rounds.

The 1967 match in Houston between Ali and Terrel became an ugly event. In the match, Terrel teased him by calling his name ‘Clay.’ Ali vowed to punish him and during the match he shouted, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom”. Terrel suffered 15 rounds of punishment, lost 13 of 15 rounds and Ali didn’t knock him out.

Ali’s refusing to serve in the military for the Vietnam war and his alliance with the Nation Of Islam put him in the center of controversies. Near the end of 1967, the Professional boxing commission stripped his title and banned him for three years.

He also got a conviction for refusing to serve in the army and sentenced to five years in prison.

He appealed against the conviction and fought to free himself. During the course of the events, he gave public speeches to support his views.

“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” – was one of his famous arguments.

Muhammad Ali’s Comeback

Muhammad ali signs victory
Image source: https://thesource.com/

In the year 1970, he got back the permission to fight in the ring and the supreme court revised the conviction in the year 1971.

In October 1970, he fought with Jerry Quarry and stopped him in three rounds. After the supreme court revoked his conviction, he fought against Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square in December 1970.

It was a tough fight and lasted for 15 rounds. Ali was able to stop Bonavena in the 15th round. Then he moved to the next round which was the title fight against Joe Frazier.

It became a most expected match as two undefeated fighters faced each other. The game lived to the expectations and it was termed as “The fight of the century.”

Joe Frazier won the match in the 15th round and he floored Ali with a hard left hook and won by points. Though Ali exhibited an impressive performance, he suffered due to the effects of ‘ring rust’, which was the result of his long layoff.

In the year 1973, Ali won a series of matches against the top heavyweight opposition. In a fight with Ken Norton, he suffered a broken jaw and lost the match.

Rumble in the Jungle

Muhammad ali knocks out the opponent

In 1974, Ali gained a match with champion George Foreman. The fight took place in Zaire (the Congo) – Ali wanted the fight to be there to help give an economic boost to this part of Africa. The pre-match hype raised the expectations to manifold.

The famous pre-match hype, “Floats like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see” belonged to this match and Ali won the rematch in the eighth round.

By this victory, he got the chance to meet Frazier again in the ring and his pre-match quote this time was “ “It will be a killer, and a chiller, and a thriller when I get the gorilla in Manila.”

The fight went for 14 rounds and finally, Ali emerged victorious in the match.

Muhammad Ali in retirement

In the year 1980, doctors diagnosed that Ali was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He had Pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome and it affected his nerve system.

His condition was worsening by late 2005. But he didn’t worry about the choice of his career. Further, he said that if he didn’t box he would still be a painter in Louisville, Kentucky.

He also felt that Parkinson’s disease helped him to look at life from a different perspective.

He stated that “Maybe my Parkinson’s is God’s way of reminding me what is important. It slowed me down and caused me to listen rather than talk. Actually, people pay more attention to me now because I don’t talk as much.” and “I always liked to chase the girls. Parkinson’s stops all that. Now I might have a chance to go to heaven.”

In Spite of his illness, he remained active in public life. In the recent Forbes Celebrity 100 list, he got rank 13 which was behind Donald Trump.

Ali served as a guest referee in the inaugural Wrestle Mania event in the year 1985.

In the year 1987, the California Bicentennial Constitution Foundation selected him to propagate the essentials of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of rights through various high profile activities.

Subsequently, he rode on a float at the Tournament of Roses and Parade in the year 1988 and launched the U.S. Constitution’s 200th birthday commemoration.

In the year 1991, he published an oral history, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times with Thomas Hauser.

He also received the spirit of America award as the most recognized American in the world.

In the year 1996, he got the honor of lighting the flame in the Summer Olympics held in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1999, at the annual BBC sports personality of the year award ceremony, he received the distinguished “Sports Personality of the Century” award.

The Kentucky Athlete Hall of Fame named him “Kentucky Athlete of the Century” on September 13, 1999.

In the year 2001, Will Smith starred in a film about Muhammad Ali.

On November 9, 2005, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. Also, he got the prestigious “Otto Hahn peace medal in Gold” of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin.

Personal life

Marriages and children

Muhammad Ali married four times and had seven daughters and two sons.

Ali married a cocktail waitress Sonji Roi on August 14, 1964. Soon they quarreled over the way she dressed and behaved. They got their divorce on January 10, 1966. Before the divorce, Ali sent her a note: “You traded heaven for hell, baby.”

On August 17, 1967, Ali married Belinda Boyd who was born into a Chicago family and later converted to the Nation of Islam. Then she also changed her name to Khalilah. They had four children.

In 1974, Ali began an illicit relationship with Wanda Bolton. Then she married her in an Islamic ceremony. In January 1985, she sued Ali for unpaid alimony. Then the case reached a settlement when Ali agreed to set up a trust fund.

Ali had another extramarital relationship with Patricia Harvell and had a daughter named Miya.

In 1977, his second marriage was over and he had married Porché. They had a baby girl at the time of their marriage. They got divorced in the year 1986.

On November 19, 1986, Ali married Yolanda Williams. Meanwhile, Kiursti Menshah-Ali claimed to be his biological daughter and Osmon Williams claimed to be his biological son.

His daughter Laila became a professional boxer and she played boxing between 1999 to 2007.

Religion and beliefs

Affiliation with the Nation of Islam

He first heard about the Nation of Islam when he was fighting the golden gloves tournament in 1959 and attended his first Nation of Islam meeting in 1961.

He kept his involvement a secret from the public. In the year 1962, Clay met Malcolm X who became his mentor in spirituality and politics.

Because of his boxing career, initially, it was difficult for him to get the entry into the Nation of Islam. But after his winning of the championship from Liston in 1964, the Nation of Islam agreed to publicize his membership.

On March 6, in a radio address, Elijah Muhammad said that Clay would be renamed to Muhammad Ali.

Ali later announced: “Cassius Clay is my slave name and stated, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. my name, not yours. my religion, not yours. my goals, my own. get used to me.”

Malcolm parted his way with the Nation of Islam a couple of weeks after Ali joined in it. With that, Ali’s friendship with him came to an end.

His loyal following of the Nation of Islam and its leader Elijah Muhammad became a matter of public condemnation as he minced no words in opposing the white people.

Conversion to Sunni/Sufi Islam

Ali converted into a Sunni Muslim, by following Warith Deen Muhammad, who became the leader of the Nation of Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammad.

He went on the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in the year 1972. The meeting of people of different colors from all over the world changed his outlook towards the world and gave him spiritual awareness.

In 1977, he said that he would dedicate the rest of his life to getting “ready to meet God” by helping people, charitable causes, uniting people and helping to make peace. Further, he went on another Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in 1988.

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack, he condemned the perpetrators of the crime as terrorists and asked people and politicians to understand what real Islam is.

Around the year 2005, Ali converted to Sufi Islam. According to his daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, after reading the books by Inayat Khan which contained Sufi teachings Ali got attracted to Sufism.

When traditional Sunni-Sufis felt the Inayat Khan’s teachings were contrary to the teachings of Sunni Islam, Ali moved away from him.

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Legacy of Muhammad Ali

Muhamad Ali defeated all top heavyweight boxers in his time and sports enthusiasts called it the golden age of heavyweight boxing.

The Ring Magazine named him “fighter of the year” many times and he got this distinction more times than any other fighter. Also, he was the one who involved in more “ Fight of the Year” bouts.

He earned a place in International Boxing Hall of Fame and the notable distinction is, he defeated seven other fighters who got their place in the hall of fame. Moreover, he was one of the three players who were named “ Sportsman of the year” by Sports Illustrated.

In the year 1978, the Louisville Board of Alderman in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, voted 6-5 to rename Walnut Street as Muhammad Ali Boulevard. There was also a failed attempt to rename his alma mater to honor him. As time went on, people began to accept him in his hometown.

The Associated Press reported in the year 1993 that Ali and Baberuth were the athletes among the 800 dead or living athletes in America. The study revealed that more than 97% of Americans aged over 12 identified both Ali and Ruth.

In 1997, he received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. Then, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century in the year 1999.

Sports Illustrated crowned him as the Sportsman of the Century and when the BBC named him Sports Personality of the Century, he received more votes than the other competitors combined.

On November 19, 2005, the $60 million non-profit Muhammad Ali Center opened in downtown Louisville. It displays his boxing memorabilia and also focuses on core themes of peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth.

On June 5, 2007, he received an honorary doctorate of humanities at Princeton University’s graduation ceremony.

Ali Mall, which was constructed to commemorate his victory over Frazier in I975, is located in Araneta Center, Quezon City, Philippines. In 1976, Ali attended the opening ceremony of the mall.

The fight between Muhammad Ali and Inoki in the year 1976, played an important role in the history of mixed martial arts. It inspired the formation of Pancrase in 1993, which in turn led to the foundation of Pride Fighting Championship in 1997.

To protect the rights and welfare of boxers in the United States, The Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act was introduced in the year 1999 and passed in the year 2000. In May 2016, a bill was introduced in the United States Congress to extend the Ali Act to martial arts. And there are also laws named after Ali to eliminate the Selective Service System.

The Sports Illustrated renamed its “Sportsman Legacy Award” to “Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award” in the year 2015.

Ali in the media and his popularity

During his time, Muhammad Ali remained as the most famous person in the media. Like a champion boxer, social activist, and a person with radical thoughts, he inspired many creative works including books, films, music, TV shows and others.

An estimated 1-2 billion people viewed several of his fights between 1974 and 1980 and nearly 3.5 billion people watched his lighting of the torch in Atlanta Olympics-1996.

He appeared 37 times on the cover of Sports Illustrated and 5 times on the cover of Time Magazine.

On the set of Freedom Road, Ali met Canadian singer-songwriter Michel and subsequently helped create Michel’s album entitled The First Flight of the Gizelda Dragon and an unaired television special featuring both of them.

Ali was the subject of the British television program This Is Your Life in 1978. In Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, a 1978 DC Comics comic book, Ali became a character.

In an episode of NBC’s Different Strokes, Ali played a guest appearance as himself in the year 1979. They picked the title of the show from Ali’s popular quote “Different strokes for different folks”. This quote also inspired the 1967 Syl Johnson song “Different Strokes” and it was one of the most sampled songs in pop music history.

He also wrote several bestselling books about his career, including The Greatest: My Own Story and The Soul of a Butterfly. The Muhammad Ali effect is a term that came into use in psychology in the 1980s. It followed his statement “I only said I was the greatest, not the smartest.

‘When We Were Kings’ was a documentary about the Rumble in the jungle in the year 1996 which won an Academy Award. And his biopic in the year 2001 got Oscar nomination for Will Smith, who portrayed Ali in the film.

In 2002, Ali received an honor as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the entertainment industry.

In 2013, Bill Siegel directed a documentary named “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” that focused on Ali’s refusal of the draft during the Vietnam War. A movie made for TV named, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight also portrayed the same aspect of Ali’s life.

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