Ali, born Cassius Marellus Clay, Jr. (January 17, 1942 - June 3, 2016)
was an American professional boxer and activist. He is widely regarded
as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the
20th century. From early in his career, Ali was known as an inspiring,
controversial, and polarizing figure both inside and outside the ring.
Clay was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and began training
as an amateur boxer when he was 12 years old. At age 18, he won a
gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics
in Rome and turned professional later that year. At age 22 in 1964,
he won the WBA, WBC, and lineal heavyweight titles from Sonny Liston
in a big upset. Clay then converted to Islam and changed his name
from Cassius Clay, which he called his "slave name", to Muhammad Ali.
He set an example of racial pride for African Americans and resistance
to white domination during the Civil Rights Movement.
two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized
the white establishment by refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military,
citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement
in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft
evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully
appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned
his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly
four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as an athlete.
Ali's actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon
for the larger counterculture generation.
Ali is regarded as
one of the leading heavyweight boxers of the 20th century. He remains
the only three time lineal heavyweight champion, having won the title
in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25 and September 19, 1964,
Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion. He is the only
boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year six times.
He was ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports
Illustrated, the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, and
the third greatest athlete of the 20th century by ESPN SportsCentury.
Nicknamed "The Greatest", he was involved in several historic boxing
matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight; the "Fight
of the Century", "Super Fight II", the "Thrilla in Manila" versus
his rival Joe Frazier, and "The Rumble in the Jungle" versus George
At a time when most fighters let their managers do
the talking, Ali thrived in and indeed craved the spotlight, where
he was often provocative and outlandish. He was known for trash talking,
and often freestyled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry, both
for his trash talking in boxing and as political poetry for his activism,
anticipating elements of rap and hip hop music. As a musician, Ali
recorded two spoken word albums and a rhythm and blues song, and received
two Grammy Award nominations. As an actor, he performed in several
films and a broadway musical. Additionally, Ali wrote two autobiographies,
one during and one after his boxing career.
As a Muslim, Ali
was initially affiliated with Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam (NOI)
and advocated their black separatist ideology. He later disavowed
the NOI, adhering initially to Sunni Islam and later to Sufism, and
supporting racial integration, like his former mentor Malcolm X.
retiring from boxing in 1981, Ali devoted his life to religious and
charitable work. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's syndrome,
which his doctors attributed to boxing-related brain injuries. As
the condition worsened, Ali made limited public appearances and was
cared for by his family until his death on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale,
Early life and amateur career
Clay grew up amid racial
segregation. His mother recalled one occasion when he was denied a
drink of water at a store, "They wouldn't give him one because of
his color. That really affected him." He was also affected by the
1955 murder of Emmett Till, which led to young Clay and a friend's
taking out their frustration by vandalizing a local railyard.