Happy Birthday

muhammad ali, muhammad ali posing, muhammad ali stance, muhammad ali clay, muhammad ali 1974
Associated Press

Happy Birthday, Muhammad Ali, “The Greatest” Heavyweight Boxer

January 17, 2010
by Denis Cummings
In the ring, Muhammad Ali established himself as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time, defeating such fighters as Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and George Foreman. Outside the ring, Ali was outspoken on race, religion and politics, earning at first condemnation, but later admiration and status as an icon of the antiwar and civil rights movements.

Muhammad Ali's Early Days

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. When he was 12 years old, his bike was stolen and he told police officer Joe Martin that he wanted to “whup” the thief. Martin, who also worked as a boxing trainer, told Clay, “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people that you’re going to whip.”

Martin began training Clay, who won his first fight six weeks later. Fighting as a light heavyweight, he won national amateur titles and won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Soon after returning to Louisville, Clay signed a professional contract and bought his mother a pink Cadillac with his signing bonus.

Ali’s Pro Career

Clay won his first 19 professional fights. He then set up a February 1964 bout with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. Though he was a 7–1 underdog, the confident Ali—who proclaimed that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”—beat Liston and won the heavyweight championship of the world.
Clay celebrated in the hotel room of Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X; the following day, he announced that he was converting to Islam and changing his name to Cassius X, and later to Muhammad Ali. Ali’s association with the “hate religion” garnered heavy criticism and caused his popularity to plummet. Former champion Joe Louis said he was “unfit” to hold the heavyweight title and former champion Floyd Patterson said he was “disgracing himself and the Negro race.”

Ali continued dominating in the ring and beat Liston in a 1965 rematch. Though he looked unbeatable in the ring, Ali was about to lose his title. He refused to join the Army after being drafted and was convicted of draft evasion in June 1967. He lost his title and was barred from boxing.

He returned to boxing in 1970, and in 1971 fought undefeated champion Joe Frazier in “The Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. He lost the fight, but won a Supreme Court case later in the year that overturned his conviction.

Ali beat Frazier in their 1974 rematch, setting up the “Rumble in the Jungle” with champion George Foreman in Zaire. Ali was an underdog against the much younger Foreman, but he knocked out the exhausted champion in the eighth round. He had regained the heavyweight championship that had been stripped away seven years earlier and cemented his status as a legend.

He would fight Frazier a year later in a rubber match dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila.” Ali ridiculed Frazier—a man who had supported him during his ban from boxing—as a “dumb gorilla” and an “Uncle Tom,” creating a bitter dispute that effectively ended their friendly relationship.

After a brutal 14 rounds, Frazier’s corner refused to let their fighter out for the final round. Though he had won, Ali looked like a beaten man. “It was like death,” he said after the fight. “Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”

The Rest of the Story

Ali continued fighting until 1981, and the years of abuse he suffered in the ring took a toll on his health. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which causes tremors, impaired speech and movement, and muscle rigidity.

Even as his health deteriorated, Ali continued making public appearances at sporting events and social causes. In 1996, he was chosen to light the cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Atlanta Olympics.

He has dedicated his life to charity and encourage others to strive for greatness. The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, a museum and education center, strives to “share the legacy and ideals of Muhammad Ali, to promote respect, hope, and understanding, and to inspire adults and children everywhere to be as great as they can be.”

Muhammad Ali Resources

In 1966, Sports Illustrated’s Jack Olsen profiled Ali in a five-part series. Part 1 examined his objection to joining the army, Part 2 recounted his childhood in Louisville, Part 3 described his differing personalities, Part 4 covered his views on race and Part 5 looked at his future.

ESPN hosts articles from former New York Times journalist Robert Lipsyte about his many encounters with Ali over the past five decades.

The New York Times has an archive of articles chronicling Ali’s life and career, from the victory over Liston to his battle with Parkinson’s disease.

Most Recent Features