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Muhammad Ali

A Biography of the Famous Boxer

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Muhammad Ali during training for his fight with Al Lewis in Dublin in 1972.

Muhammad Ali during training for his fight with Al "Blue" Lewis held in Dublin, Republic of Ireland in 1972.

(Photo by Getty Images)
Muhammad Ali vs. Alfredo Evangelista

Muhammad Ali fights Uruguayan Alfredo Evangelista in a Heavyweight Championship bout at the Capital Centre, Landover, Maryland, USA, May 16, 1977.

Joseph Klipple/Archive Photos/Getty Images
American boxer Muhammad Ali (a.k.a. Cassius Clay) speaks during an interview for French television.

American boxer Muhammad Ali (a.k.a. Cassius Clay) speaks during an interview for a French television program in 1978 in Paris, France.

(Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images)

Who Is Muhammad Ali?

Muhammad Ali is one of the most famous boxers of all time. His conversion to Islam and draft evasion conviction surrounded him with controversy and even exile from boxing for three years. Despite the hiatus, his quick reflexes and strong punches helped Muhammad Ali become the first person in history to win the heavyweight champion title three times. At the lighting ceremony at the 1996 Olympics, Muhammad Ali showed the world his strength and determination in dealing with the debilitating effects of Parkinson's syndrome.

Dates: January 17, 1942 --

Also Known As: (born as) Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., "The Greatest," the Louisville Lip

Married:

  • Sonji Roi (1964 - 1966)
  • Belinda Boyd (1967 - circa 1977)
  • Veronica Porche (1977 - 1996)
  • Yolanda "Lonnie" Williams (1996 - Present)

Childhood of Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. at 6:35 p.m. on January 17, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky to Cassius Clay Sr. and Odessa Grady Clay. Cassius Clay Sr. was a muralist, but painted signs for a living. Odessa Clay worked as a housecleaner and a cook. Two years after Muhammad Ali was born, the couple had another son, Rudolph ("Rudy").

The Stolen Bicycle: Muhammad Ali Becomes a Boxer

When Muhammad Ali was 12 years old, he and a friend went to the Columbia Auditorium to partake in the free hot dogs and popcorn available for visitors of the Louisville Home Show. When the boys were done eating, they went back to get their bicycles only to discover that Muhammad Ali's had been stolen.

Furious, Muhammad Ali went to the basement of the Columbia Auditorium to report the crime to police officer Joe Martin, who was also a boxing coach at the Columbia Gym. When Muhammad Ali said he wanted to beat up the person who stole his bike, Martin told him that he should probably learn to fight first. A few days later, Muhammad Ali began boxing training at Martin's gym.

From the very beginning, Muhammad Ali took his training seriously. He trained six days a week. On schooldays, he woke early in the morning so that he could go running and then would go workout at the gym in the evening. When Martin's gym closed at 8 pm, Ali would then go train at another boxing gym. Over time, Muhammad Ali also created his own eating regimen that included milk and raw eggs for breakfast. Concerned about what he put in his body, Ali stayed away from junk food, alcohol, and cigarettes so that he could be the best boxer in the world.

The 1960 Olympics

Even in his early training, Muhammad Ali boxed like no one else. He was fast. So fast that he didn't duck punches like most other boxers; instead, he just leaned back away from them. He also didn't put his hands up to protect his face; he kept them down by his hips.

In 1960, the Olympic Games were held in Rome. Muhammad Ali, then 18 years old, had already won national tournaments such as the Golden Gloves and so he felt ready to compete in the Olympics. On September 5, 1960, Muhammad Ali (then still known as Cassius Clay) fought against Zbigniew Pietrzyskowski from Poland in the light-heavyweight championship bout. In a unanimous decision, the judges declared Ali the winner, which meant Ali had won the Olympic gold medal.

Having won the Olympic gold medal, Muhammad Ali had attained the top position in amateur boxing. It was time for him to turn professional.

Wins the Heavyweight Title

As Muhammad Ali started fighting in professional boxing bouts, he realized that there things he could do to create attention for himself. For instance, before fights, Ali would say things to worry his opponents. He would also frequently declare, "I am the greatest of all time!" Often before a fight, Ali would write poetry that would either called the round his opponent would fall or boast of his own abilities. Muhammad Ali's most famous line was when he stated he was going to "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

His theatrics worked. Many people paid to see Muhammad Ali's fights just to see such a braggart lose. In 1964, even the heavyweight champion, Charles "Sonny" Liston got caught up in the hype and agreed to fight Muhammad Ali.

On February 25, 1964, Muhammad Ali fought Liston for the heavyweight title in Miami, Florida. Liston tried for a quick knockout, but Ali was too fast to catch. By the 7th round, Liston was too exhausted, had hurt his shoulder, and was worried about a cut under his eye. Liston refused to continue the fight. Muhammad Ali had become the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

The Nation of Islam and Name Change

The day after the championship bout with Liston, Muhammad Ali publicly announced his conversion to Islam. The public was not happy. Ali had joined the Nation of Islam, a group led by Elijah Muhammad that advocated for a separate black nation. Since many people found the Nation of Islam's beliefs to be racist, they were angry and disappointed that Ali had joined them.

Up to this point, Muhammad Ali was still known as Cassius Clay. When he joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, he shed his "slave name" (he had been named after a white abolitionist that had freed his slaves) and took on the new name of Muhammad Ali.

Banned From Boxing: Draft Evasion

During the three years after the Liston fight, Ali won every bout. He had become one of the most popular athletes of 1960s. He had become a symbol of black pride. Then in 1967, Muhammad Ali received a draft notice.

The United States was calling up young men to fight in the Vietnam War. Since Muhammad Ali was a famous boxer, he could have requested special treatment and just entertained the troops. However, Ali's deep religious beliefs forbade killing, even in war, and so Ali refused to go.

In June 1967, Muhammad Ali was tried and found guilty of draft evasion. Although he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in jail, he remained out on bail while he appealed. However, in response to public outrage, Muhammad Ali was banned from boxing and stripped of his heavyweight title.

For three and a half years, Muhammad Ali was "exiled" from professional boxing. While watching others claim the heavyweight title, Ali lectured around the country to earn some money.

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