Muhammad Ali-Haj (born January 17, 1942 as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr.), is an American boxer. He is one of the world's greatest heavyweight boxers, as well as one of the world's most famous individuals, renowned the world over for his boxing and political activism.
Clay was born in Louisville, Kentucky. At age 12, he had his bicycle stolen, and reported the fact to a local policeman (and boxing trainer), Joe Martin. Martin suggested that Clay learn to fight and under his guidance, Clay rapidly advanced through the youth ranks. A low achiever academically, Clay won six Kentucky Gold Gloves while at high school, and was allowed to graduate despite his poor grades. Presciently, his principal announced to a staff meeting debating the issue that Clay would someday be "this school's claim to fame".
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome he won a gold medal as a light heavyweight boxer. He then turned professional under the tutelage of boxing legend Angelo Dundee, and quickly became famous for his unorthodox style, his spectacular results, and his tireless self-promotion. He made a name for himself as the "Louisville Lip" by composing poems predicting in which round he would knock his opponent out. He boisterously sang his own praises, with sayings like "I am the greatest" and "I'm young, I'm pretty, and I can't possibly be beat."
In Louisville on October 29, 1960 Cassius Clay won his first professional fight.
In 1964, Clay managed to get himself an opportunity to fight heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. He stunned the world by upsetting the heavy favorite Liston, who refused to leave his corner for the eighth round, claiming he had injured his shoulder. Clay was duly crowned the heavyweight champion of the world. He would confirm his abilities in 1965, when he knocked Liston out in the first round of their rematch, albeit controversially as few observers saw the "phantom punch" that floored Liston.
In between the two matches, he also became famous for other reasons: he joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, he refused to serve in the American army in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, famously saying that he "got nothing against no Viet Cong" and "No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." He was stripped of his championship belt and his license to box, and sentenced to five years in prison (which was overturned on appeal three years later).
Ali's actions in refusing military service and aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod of controversy, turning the outspoken but popular former champion into one of that era's most recognizable and controversial figures. Appearing at rallies with Nation of Islam leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X, and declaring his allegiance to them at a time when mainstream America viewed them with suspicion if not actual hostility, made Ali a target of outrage and suspicion as well. Ali seemed at times to even provoke such reactions, with viewpoints that wavered from support for civil rights to outright support of racial separatism.
In 1970, granted a license to box once more following his Supreme Court victory wherein he was granted his right to refuse military service, he began a comeback. But he suffered a setback when he lost his 1971 title fight, a bruising 15 round encounter with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. This fight, known simply as "The Fight," was perhaps one of the most famous and eagerly-anticipated bouts of all time, since it featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had reasonable claims to the heavyweight crown. The fight lived up to the hype, and Frazier punctuated his victory by flooring Ali with a hard left hook in the final round. Ali split two bouts with Ken Norton before beating Frazier on points in their 1974 rematch to earn another title shot.
The incumbent, George Foreman, was a large, hard-hitting, undefeated young fighter who had previously demolished Frazier, KO'ing him in the second round of their championship fight, and was the heavy favorite. The fight was held in Zaire and promoted by Don King as "The Rumble in The Jungle." In the October 30, 1974 bout that would cement his reputation as "The Greatest", Ali boxed his best tactical fight. Leading with his "wrong" hand and playing "rope-a-dope" by leaning far back on the ropes (that had supposedly been loosened by Dundee), Ali absorbed everything Foreman could throw at him, whilst only occasionally throwing counter punches. By the end of the sixth round, Foreman had punched himself out and Ali was able to attack a little more. Foreman kept advancing, but his blows were much less effective and near the end of the eighth, Ali's right hand finally sent the exhausted Foreman to the floor. As a result of this fight, he was awarded the 1974 Hickok Belt as top professional athlete of the year and Sports Illustrated magazine's "Sportsman of the Year" award.
In 1975, Ali defeated Joe Frazier once more in the Thrilla In Manila in the Philippines. This fight surpassed their earlier bouts and became one of the most well-known heavyweight fights ever. After 14 grueling rounds, Frazier's trainer Eddie Futch refused to allow Frazier to continue, and Ali left the winner by TKO. Along with the "Rumble", his fights with Frazier are widely considered among the greatest in boxing history. Ring Magazine called this bout 1975's Fight of the Year, the fifth year an Ali fight had earned that distinction.
He would retain his title until a 1978 loss to 1976 Olympic champion Leon Spinks,who was fighting in only his eighth professional fight. He defeated Spinks in a rematch, becoming the heavyweight champion for the record third time. Then on June 27, 1979, he announced his retirement and vacated the title.
That retirement was short-lived, however, and on October 2, 1980, he challenged Larry Holmes for the WBC's version of the world Heavyweight title. Looking to set another record, as the first boxer to win the Heavyweight title four times, he lost by technical knockout in round eleven, when Dundee would not let him come out for the round. The Holmes fight, promoted as The Last Hurrah, was a fight many fans and experts view with disdain, because of what many viewed as a "deteriorated version" of Ali. Holmes was Ali's sparring partner when Holmes was a budding fighter, and because of that, some viewed the result of the fight as a symbolic "passing of the torch." Holmes even admitted later that, although he dominated the fight, he held his punches back a bit out of sheer respect for his idol and former employer.
Despite the apparent finality of his loss to Holmes, and his increasingly suspect medical condition, Ali would fight one more time. On December 11, 1981, he fought rising contender and future world champion Trevor Berbick, in what was billed as "The Drama in the Bahamas." Because Ali was widely viewed as a damaged fighter, few American venues expressed much interest in hosting the bout, and few fans expressed much interest in attending or watching it. Compared to the mega-fights Ali fought in widely-known venues earlier in his career, the fight eventually took place in virtual obscurity in Nassau. Although Ali performed marginally better against Berbick than he had against Holmes fourteen months earlier, he still lost a 10-round unanimous decision to Berbick, who at 27 was 12 years younger.
Following this loss, Ali retired permanently in 1981 with a career record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, against 5 losses.
Ali had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. He carried his hands at his sides rather than the orthodox boxing style of carrying the hands high to defend the face. Instead, he relied on his extraordinary reflexes and reach to keep him away from his opponents' blows. Ali punched to the head much more than most boxers--a high-risk strategy since over the duration of a long fight punches to the body can be much more effective in tiring an opponent out.
Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1982, following which his motor functions began a slow decline. Despite this, he remains a hero to millions around the world. In 1985, he was called on to negotiate for the release of kidnapped Americans in Lebanon; in 1996, to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Georgia. At the same Olympics, Ali was also presented with a replacement gold medal. He had thrown the previous one, won in 1960, in the Ohio River after he had been refused service in a restaurant because of his race.
See also: Ramadan Ali.
Sting Like a Bee, by Jose Torres (with significant contributions from Bert Randolph Sugar and Norman Mailer). ISBN 0071395881
The Greatest (1977, starring Ali as himself)
Ali (movie) (2001, directed by Michael Mann, starring Will Smith)
When We were Kings (filmed 1974, released 1996, documentary about the "Rumble in the Jungle" by filmmaker Leon Gast.)