Muhammad Ali is one of the best, if not the best, boxers of all time. He was an influential leader not only inside the ring, but throughout the world. His overwhelming confidence captured millions, bringing the sport of boxing the publicity it has always deserved. Though many criticized his brash comments, he became a role model of children across the nation. He frequently gave speeches in schools and ghettos throughout America. He managed to succeed in a world that was run by whites.
Born January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Clay, Jr., displayed fighting skills early in his life when he punched his mother after she spanked him for misbehavior. It was not until he turned 12, however, that he became interested in boxing. He had just received a new, red bicycle for his birthday, so he and a friend rode bikes to the fair. While he was milling around, someone stole his bike. He searched for his bike for hours, but it was to no avail. When he started asking people on his block if they had seen it, someone suggested he go ask Joe Martin, a policeman and owner of a boxing gym. Cassius was awestruck the moment he walked into the gym. Joe gave him an application and Cassius joined the gym the following day. Though he had not found his bike, he did find his future.
Cassius trained constantly. He worked out after school every day, and he trained with Fred Stoner after supper from eight until midnight. Finally, his hard work was starting to pay off. In 1956 he won the Kentucky Golden Gloves tournament. Then, in 1958, he won the Louisville Golden Gloves light-heavyweight crown. He went on to win the National Golden Gloves light-heavyweight title in Chicago. Cassius really showed his skills in 1960 by winning the Golden Gloves title in Madison Square Garden as well as the Tournament of Champions in Chicago. Throughout his amateur career, Cassius had fought in 130 fights and won all but seven. As his wins increased, so did his boasting. He bragged that he was going to win the gold metal in the 1960 summer Olympics before even stepping on the plane. When he returned home with the gold metal around his neck, however, he still was not even allowed to order a cheeseburger from a fast food restaurant. This upset him so much that he ran to a nearby river and threw his metal into the swift current.
Cassius was now ready to turn pro. He brought attention to himself by bragging about his boxing abilities as much as possible. He also predicted the round in which he would defeat his opponents. The arrogant poems quickly followed. Unbeaten, he felt he could face Sonny Liston, the Heavyweight Champion of the world. After being pummeled for six straight rounds, Liston could not get off his stool to fight the seventh round. Cassius Clay was now the Heavyweight Champion!
In 1963, a few weeks after his fight with Liston, Cassius announced that he was a member of the Muslim faith and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ironically, the name means “the one who is worthy of praise”. Many people were upset at this because they thought the Muslims were violent racists. Ali told reporters that “Islam is a religion of peace and love. All I want is peace.”
Ali was drafted into the army in 1967. He refused to serve in the army, as killing and bearing weapons were against his religious principles. After being found guilty of draft dodging, the World Boxing Association (WBA)stripped him of his championship title and boxing license. His lawyers made an appeal, and this time the court confirmed his beliefs were sincere. His license was returned as well as his title. He soon lost his title, however, in 1971 in a 15 round match against Joe Frazier. Many people thought Ali should have retired after the loss, but he refused to quit. He only ran and trained harder and longer. This helped him to overcome the odds and regain his title in 1974 by knocking out George Foreman in the eighth round. Again, people believed Ali should have retired a champion, but he kept on fighting….and winning! Writers that year voted him the third greatest athlete from 1900-1977, next to Jim Thorpe and Babe Ruth.
In 1978 Ali lost his title in a 15 round fight versus Leon Spinks. After a long and grueling seven months of training, Ali won back the championship title in a rematch. Finally, in 1979, Ali wrote a letter to the WBA saying that he was going to retire and give up his heavyweight title. Despite his logic, Ali just could not stay away from boxing. He decided to box against Larry Holmes in 1980. Though he trained hard, the 38 year old, three time heavyweight champion was no match for Holmes.
In 1984, Ali went to a medical center in New York with complaints of slurred speech and poor hand-eye coordination. Doctors discovered Ali had been suffering from a disease known as Parkinson’s syndrome. The disease slurs speech, slows movement, and can cause sudden fatigue. The cause of the syndrome has been linked to the suffering of too many blows to Ali’s head, particularly in the fights against Frazier, Norton, and Holmes. He now spends his time with his wife and children, as well as supporting various charity events.
Muhammad Ali. By John Stravinsky. Copyright 1997. Random House Value Publishing, Inc. 201 East 50th Street. New York, New York.
Muhammad Ali: The Greatest. By Jim Spence. Copyright 1995. The Rourke Press, Inc. Vero Beach, Florida.
Encyclopedia of American Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty and Jerome L. Sternstein. Ali, Muhammad, pg. 29-30, Harvard Sitkoff.
Muhammad Ali: The Fight for Respect. Thomas Conklin. Copyright 1992. Millbrook Press. Brookfield, Connecticut.
Champions Forever. Film. 115 min. 1996 American Home Entertainment.