Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; January 17, 1942) is an American former professional boxer, generally considered among the greatest heavyweights in the sport’s history. A controversial and even polarizing figure during his early career, Ali is today widely regarded not only for the skills he displayed in the ring but for the values he exemplified outside of it: religious freedom, racial justice and the triumph of principle over expedience. He is one of the most recognized sports figures of the past 100 years, crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and “Sports Personality of the Century” by the BBC.Born Cassius Clay, at the age of 22 he won the world heavyweight championship in 1964 from Sonny Liston in a stunning upset. Shortly after that bout, Ali joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name. He subsequently converted to Sunni Islam in 1975.
In 1967, three years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali refused to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing title. He did not fight again for nearly four years—losing a time of peak performance in an athlete’s career. Ali’s appeal worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where in 1971 his conviction was overturned. Ali’s personal courage as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.Ali remains the only three-time lineal World Heavyweight Champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, Ali was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight, three with rival Joe Frazier, and one with George Foreman, where he regained titles he had been stripped of seven years earlier.
Ali revolutionized the sport of boxing by sheer power and magnetism of his personality  At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in — and indeed craved — the spotlight, where he was sometimes provocative, frequently outlandish and almost always entertaining. He controlled most press conferences and interviews, and spoke freely about issues unrelated to boxing. He transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to completely “define the terms of his public reputation.” His daughter, Laila Ali is an undefeated super-middle weight boxing champion.
Early life and amateur career
Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., was born on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. Unlike many boxers, he was raised in a supportive, African American middle-class family. The eldest of two boys, he was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., who himself was named after the 19th century abolitionist and politician of the same name. His father painted billboards and signs, and his mother, Odessa O’Grady Clay, was a household domestic. Although Cassius Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Cassius and his younger brother Rudolph “Rudy” Clay (later renamed Rahman Ali) as Baptists. He is a descendant of pre-Civil War era American slaves in the American South, and is predominantly of African-American descent, with Irish and English ancestry.
He was first directed toward boxing by Louisville police officer and boxing coach Joe E. Martin, who encountered the 12-year-old fuming over a thief taking his bicycle. He told the officer he was going to “whup” the thief. The officer told him he better learn how to box first. For the last four years of Clay’s amateur career he was trained by boxing cutman Chuck Bodak.Clay won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Clay’s amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. Shortly after his return home from Rome following the Olympics, Ali would claim in his 1975 autobiography that he threw his medal into the Ohio River after he and a friend of his were being refused service at a “whites-only” restaurant, and fighting with a white gang. The story has since been heavily debated and several of Ali’s friends from photographer Howard Bingham to Budini Brown denied it. Brown later told Sports Illustrated writer Mark Kram, “Honkies sure bought into that one!” Thomas Hauser’s biography of Ali confirmed that Ali was refused service at the diner but that he lost his medal a year after he won it. Ali later received a replacement medal at a basketball intermission during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
Clay made his professional debut on October 29, 1960, winning a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. From then until the end of 1963, Clay amassed a record of 19–0 with 15 wins by knockout. He defeated boxers including Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark, Doug Jones and Henry Cooper. Clay also beat his former trainer and veteran boxer Archie Moore in a 1962 match These early fights were not without trials. Clay was knocked down both by Sonny Banks and Cooper. In the Cooper fight, Clay was floored by a vicious left hook at the end of round four and was saved by the bell. The fight with Doug Jones on March 13, 1963 was Clay’s toughest fight during this stretch. The number two and three heavyweight contenders respectively, Clay and Jones fought on Jones’ home turf at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Jones staggered Clay the first round, and the unanimous decision for Clay was greeted by boos and a rain of debris thrown onto the ring (watching on closed-circuit TV, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston quipped that if he fought Clay he might get locked up for murder). The fight was later named “Fight of the Year”.
In each of these fights, Clay vocally belittled his opponents and vaunted his abilities. Jones was “an ugly little man;” Cooper was a “bum.” He was embarrassed to get in the ring with Alex Miteff. Madison Square Garden was “too small for me.” This audacious behavior, unlike that of any fighter in recent memory, made him controversial and disliked by most writers, many former champions and much of the general public. After Clay left Moore’s camp in 1960, partially due to Clay refusing to do chores such as dishwashing and sweeping, he hired Angelo Dundee, whom he had met in February 1957 during Ali’s amateur career, to be his trainer. Around this time, Clay sought longtime idol Sugar Ray Robinson to be his manager, but was rebuffed.
By late 1963 Clay had become the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. The fight was set for February 25, 1964 in Miami. Liston was an intimidating personality, a dominating fighter with a criminal past and ties to the mob. Based on Clay’s uninspired performance against Jones and Cooper in his previous two fights, and Liston’s destruction of former heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson in two first round knock outs, Clay was a 7–1 underdog. Despite this, Clay taunted Liston during the pre-fight buildup, dubbing him “the big ugly bear.” “Liston even smells like a bear,” Clay said. “After I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” He declared that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and, summarizing his strategy for avoiding Liston’s assaults, said, “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.” Clay turned the pre-fight weigh-in into a circus, shouting at Liston that “someone is going to die at ringside tonight.” Nothing like this had ever occurred in the history of boxing. Clay’s pulse rate was around 120, more than double his norm of 54.
Most of those in attendance, apparently including Liston, thought Clay’s behavior stemmed from extreme fear; some commentators wondered if he would even show up for the bout. The outcome of the fight was one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. At the opening bell, Liston rushed at Clay, seemingly angry and looking for a quick knockout. But Clay’s superior speed and mobility enabled him to elude Liston, making the champion miss wildly and look awkward. At the end of the first round Clay opened up his attack and hit Liston repeatedly with sharp jabs—to the amazement of the crowd. Liston fought better in round two, but at the beginning of the third round Clay hit Liston with a combination that buckled his knees and opened a cut under his left eye, the first time Liston had ever been cut. Clay rested in round four, but as he came to his corner at the end of the round, he began experiencing blinding pain in his eyes and asked his trainer Angelo Dundee to cut off his gloves. Dundee refused. It has been speculated that the problem was due to ointment used to seal Liston’s cuts, perhaps deliberately applied by his corner to his gloves. (Though not confirmed, Bert Sugar claimed that at least two of Liston’s opponents also complained about their eyes ‘burning'”. ).
Despite Liston’s attempts to knock out a blinded Clay, Clay was able to survive the fifth round until sweat and tears rinsed the substance from his eyes. In the sixth Clay dominated, hitting Liston virtually at will. Liston did not answer the bell for the seventh round, and Clay was declared the winner by TKO. Liston stated that the reason he quit was an injured shoulder. Following the win, a triumphant Clay rushed to the edge of the ring and, pointing to the ringside press, shouted “eat your words!” Then, during the now-infamous in-ring interview following the match, Clay shouted “I shook up the world!” “I talk to God every day.” “I must be the greatest!”
When Clay won, he became the youngest boxer (22 years old) to take the title from a reigning heavyweight champion, though Floyd Patterson was the youngest to win the heavyweight championship at 21, during an elimination bout following Rocky Marciano‘s retirement. Mike Tyson broke both records in 1986 when he defeated Trevor Berbick to win the heavyweight title at age 20.
Clay, now having changed his name to Muhammad Ali following his conversion to Islam and affiliation with the Nation of Islam, met Liston for a rematch in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. Originally scheduled for Boston the previous November, it was delayed due to Ali’s emergency surgery for a hernia three days before. Postponed six months, the fight proved to be as controversial as the first was shocking. Midway through the first round, Liston was knocked down by a punch later dubbed by the press as the “phantom punch” because no one saw it. Ali refused to retreat to a neutral corner, and referee Jersey Joe Walcott did not begin the count. Liston rose after he had been down about 20 seconds, and the fight momentarily continued. But suddenly Walcott reversed himself and stopped the match, declaring Ali the winner by knockout. The entire fight lasted less than two minutes.
Rumors circulated almost immediately after the fight – and continue to this day – that Liston dropped to the ground purposely. Various reasons include threats on his life from the Nation of Islam, that he had bet against himself and that he “took a dive” to pay off debts. Slow motion replays show that Liston was jarred by a chopping right from Ali, although it is uncertain whether the blow was a genuine knock-out punch. Ali’s second title defense was against Floyd Patterson, former heavyweight champion who had lost twice to Liston in first round knockouts. Patterson had made what Ali considered denigrating remarks about his religion; Ali dubbed Patterson a “white man’s champion” and taunted him with the name “Rabbit.” At times during the fight, Ali appeared to toy with Patterson, refusing, for example, to throw a single punch in the first round and easily avoiding Patterson’s lunging “kangaroo punch.” Some felt Ali deliberately prolonged the fight to inflict maximum punishment. Ali won a 12 round TKO. Patterson later said that he strained his sacroiliac, a statement supported by video of the fight. The clowning and taunting of Patterson was criticized by many in the sports media.
Ali and then-WBA heavyweight champion boxer Ernie Terrell had agreed to meet for a bout in Chicago on March 29, 1966 (the WBA, one of two boxing associations, had stripped Ali of his title following his joining the Nation of Islam). But in February Ali was reclassified by the Louisville draft board as 1-A from 1-Y, and he indicated that he would refuse to serve, commenting to the press, “I got nothin against them Vietcong.” Amidst the media and public outcry over Ali’s stance, the Illinois Athletic Commission refused to host the fight, citing technicalities .Instead, Ali traveled to Canada and Europe and won championship bouts against George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London and Karl Mildenberger.
Ali returned to the United States to fight Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome. According to Sports Illustrated, the bout drew a then-indoor world record of 35,460. Williams had once been considered among the hardest punchers in the heavyweight division, but In 1964 he had been shot at point-blank range by a Texas policeman, resulting in the loss of one kidney and 10 feet (3.0 m) of his small intestine. Ali dominated Williams, winning a third round TKO in what some consider the finest boxing exhibition of his career. Ali and Terrell finally met in Houston on February 6, 1967. Terrell was considered Ali’s toughest opponent since Liston – unbeaten in five years and having defeated many of the boxers Ali had faced. Terrell was big, strong and had a three inch reach advantage over Ali. During the lead up to the bout, Terrell repeatedly called Ali “Clay,” much to Ali’s annoyance (Ali called Cassius Clay his “slave name”). The two almost came to blows over the point in a pre-fight interview with Howard Cosell. Ali seemed intent on humiliating Terrell. “I want to torture him,” he said. “A clean knockout is too good for him.”.
The fight was close until the seventh round when Ali bloodied Terrell and almost knocked him out. In the eighth round, Ali taunted Terrell, hitting him with sharp jabs and shouting between punches, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom… what’s my name?” Ali was unable to knock out Terrell, winning a unanimous 15 round decision. Terrell claimed that early in the fight Ali deliberately thumbed him – forcing Terrell to fight with one eye – and then, in a clinch, rubbed the wounded eye against the ropes. Because of Ali’s apparent intent to prolong to fight to inflict maximum punishment, critics described the bout as “one of the ugliest boxing fights”. Tex Maule later wrote: “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.” Ali denied he intended to harm Terrell on purpose nor did he feel he was cruel to him during the bout. But for Ali’s critics, the fight provided still more evidence of his arrogance. After his title defense against Zora Folley on March 22, Ali’s title was stripped following his refusal to be drafted to Army service on April 28, His boxing license was also immediately suspended by the state of New York; he was convicted on June 20 by an all-white jury and sentenced to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for draft evasion. While his case was on appeal, he was free on posted bond.
Exile and comeback
Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, stating publicly that, “no Vietcong ever called me nigger.” He was systematically denied a boxing license in every state and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight from March, 1967 to October, 1970—from ages 25 to almost 29—as his case worked its way through the appeal process. In 1971, the US Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a unanimous 8-0 ruling (Thurgood Marshall abstained from the case). During this time of inactivity, as opposition to the Vietnam War began to grow and Ali’s stance gained sympathy, he spoke at colleges across the nation, criticizing the Vietnam War and advocating African American pride and racial justice.
On August 12, 1970, with his case still in appeal in 1970, Ali was granted a license on August 12 to box by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission, thanks to State Senator Leroy R. Johnson. Ali’s first return bout was against Jerry Quarry on October 26, resulting in a win after three rounds after Quarry was cut. A month earlier, a victory in federal court forced the New York State Boxing Commission to reinstate Ali’s license. He fought Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December, a uninspired performance that ended in a dramatic TKO of Bonavena in the 15th round. The win left Ali as a top contender against heavyweight champion Joe Frazier. Ali and Frazier’s first fight, held at the Garden on March 8, 1971, was nicknamed the “Fight of the Century“, due to the tremendous excitement surrounding a bout between two undefeated fighters, each with a legitimate claim as heavyweight champions. Veteran boxing writer John Condon called it “the greatest event I’ve ever worked on in my life.” The bout was broadcast to 35 foreign countries; promoters granted 760 press passes.
Adding to the atmosphere were the considerable pre-fight theatrics and name calling. Ali portrayed Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment.” “Frazier is too ugly to be champ,” Ali said. “Frazier is too dumb to be champ.” Ali also frequently called Frazier an Uncle Tom. Dave Wolf, who worked in Frazier’s camp, recalled that, “Ali was saying, ‘the only people rooting for Joe Frazier are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs, and members of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m fighting for the little man in the ghetto.’ Joe was sitting there smashing his fist into the palm of his hand, saying, ‘What the fuck does he know about the ghetto?'”The Monday night fight lived up to its billing. In a preview of their two other fights, a crouching, bobbing and weaving Frazier constantly pressured Ali, getting hit regularly by Ali jabs and combinations, but relentlessly attacking and scoring repeatedly, especially to Ali’s body. The fight was even in the early rounds, but Ali was taking more punishment than ever in his career.
On several occasions in the early rounds he played to the crowd and shook his head “no” after he was hit. In the later rounds—in what was the first appearance of the “rope-a-dope strategy”—Ali leaned against the ropes and absorbed punishment from Frazier, hoping to tire him. In the 11th round, Frazier connected with a left hook that wobbled Ali, but because it appeared that Ali might be clowning as he staggered backwards across the ring, Frazier hesitated to press his advantage, fearing an Ali counter-attack. In the final round, Frazier knocked Ali down with a vicious left hook, which referee Arthur Mercante said was as hard as a man can be hit. Ali was back on his feet in three seconds  Nevertheless, Ali lost by unanimous decision, his first professional defeat.
Ali’s characterizations of Frazier during the lead-up to the fight cemented a personal animosity toward Ali by Frazier that lasted until Frazier’s death. Frazier and his camp always considered Ali’s words cruel and unfair, far beyond what was necessary to sell tickets. Shortly after the bout, in the studios of ABC’s Wide World of Sports during a nationally televised interview with the two boxers, Frazier rose from his chair and wrestled Ali to the floor after Ali called him ignorant. After the loss, Ali fought Quarry, a second bout with Floyd Patterson and Bob Foster in 1972, winning a total of six fights that year. In 1973, Ali suffered the second loss of his career at the hands of Ken Norton, who broke Ali’s jaw during the fight. After initially seeking retirement, Ali won a controversial decision against Norton in their second bout, leading to a rematch at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 1974 with Joe Frazier—who had recently lost his title to George Foreman.
Ali was strong in the early rounds of the fight, and staggered Frazier in the second round (referee Tony Perez mistakenly thought he heard the bell ending the round and stepped between the two fighters as Ali was pressing his attack, giving Frazier time to recover). However, Frazier came on in the middle rounds, snapping Ali’s head in round seven and driving him to the ropes at the end of round eight. The last four rounds saw round-to-round shifts in momentum between the two fighters. Throughout most of the bout, however, Ali was able circle away from Frazier’s dangerous left hook and to tie Frazier up when he was cornered—the latter a tactic that Frazier’s camp complained of bitterly. Judges awarded Ali a unanimous decision.
Heavyweight champion (second tenure)
The defeat of Frazier set the stage for a title fight against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974—a bout nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle“. Foreman was considered one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. In assessing the fight, analysts pointed out that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton—who had given Ali four tough battles and won two of them—had been both devastated by Foreman in second round knockouts. Ali was 32 years old, and had clearly lost speed and reflexes since his twenties. Contrary to his later persona, Foreman was at the time a brooding and intimidating presence. Almost no one associated with the sport, not even Ali’s long-time supporter Howard Cosell, gave the former champion a chance of winning.
As usual, Ali was confident and colorful before the fight. He told interviewer David Frost, “if you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!”  He told the press, “I’ve done something new for this fight. I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Ali was wildly popular in Zaire, with crowds chanting “Ali, bomaye” (“Ali, kill him”) wherever he went. Ali opened the fight moving and scoring with right crosses to Foreman’s head. Then, beginning in the second round—and to the consternation of his corner—Ali retreated to the ropes and invited Foreman to hit him while covering up, clinching and counter-punching—all while verbally taunting Foreman (“is that all you got, George? They told me you could hit.”). The move, which would later become known as the “Rope-A-Dope,” so violated conventional boxing wisdom—letting one of the hardest hitters in boxing strike at will—that at ringside writer George Plimpton thought the fight had to be fixed. Foreman, increasingly angered, threw punches that were deflected and didn’t land squarely. Midway through the fight, as Foreman began tiring, Ali countered more frequently and effectively with punches and flurries, which electrified the pro-Ali crowd. In the eighth, Ali dropped an exhausted Foreman with a combination at center ring; Foreman failed to make the count. Against the odds, and amidst pandemonium in the ring, Ali had regained the title by knockout.