Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Greatest!

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942.  He was the son of a billboard painter and a domestic servant who raised their son in the Baptist faith.  Clay was dyslexic, a problem that he would never truly overcome.  It caused great difficulties during his school years, as did the racial segregation taking part in his community.  

When Clay was 12 years old, someone stole his bicycle.  He had no way of knowing it, but this episode would forever alter the course of his life.  He reported the crime to Louisville police officer Joe E. Martin, adding that he intended to find and "whup" the thief.  Martin informed the young Clay that he had better learn how to box.  Clay was hesitant at first, but was later inspired by a local boxing TV program.  He began to work with trainer Fred Stoner, the man he credited for teaching him his style.

Clay made his amateur debut in 1954, fighting local boxer Ronnie O'Keefe and beating him in a split decision.  He'd later win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles and two national titles, before setting his sites on the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.  There he bested Poland's Zigzy Pietrzykowski, bringing home the gold medal.  You can watch that fight here

Following the Olympics, Clay turned pro.  For the next four years he remained undefeated, amassing 19 wins, 15 of which were by knockout.  Included among his many victories was his former trainer and veteran boxer Archie Moore.  The learner was now the master.

All of this was preparing Clay for his first shot at the Heavyweight title, which came on February 25, 1964 in Miami Beach.  There he faced then-current champion Sonny Liston, an imposing figure in his own right with known ties to the mob.  In a fight reminiscent of basically every Rocky movie, no one expected Clay to win.  But win he did, in a major upset.  In doing so, he became the youngest contender to ever best a champion.  You can watch that fight here.

Following this fight, Clay converted to Islam.  He adopted the more commonly known moniker of Muhammad Ali and resumed his professional career.  His first contender was none other than Sonny Liston, who only lasted two minutes in the ring!  His next bout was with former champion Floyd Patterson, a fight that remains controversial to this day.  Despite having an obvious physical advantage over Patterson, the fight lasted for 12 rounds, leading many to believe that Ali was toying with the defeated champ.  Others claim Ali was showing him mercy, helping him earn enough money to pay off a huge debt to the IRS.

The champ was about to take a hiatus however.  In March 1966, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, at a time when America was overseas fighting the Vietnam War.  In response, Ali was denied a boxing license by all 50 states (even the blue ones) and his passport was revoked.  As a result, he'd sit out the next five years.  During the interim, he went on the college lecture circuit, where he spoke out against the war.  He regained his license in 1971.

His first fight would become one of his most famous, the appropriately dubbed "Fight of the Century" against "Smokin' Joe" Frazier, on March 8, 1971.  It was broadcast in 35 countries and promoted worldwide.  The two boxers taunted one another, both inside and out of the ring, with Ali declaring Frazier "too ugly to be champ" and Frazier questioning Ali's mental state.  Ultimately, Frazier was the victor, resulting in Ali's first professional defeat.  The two would meet in the ring once again three years later, with a very different outcome.  You can watch their 1971 fight here.

Following the 1974 rematch, Ali decided it was time to reclaim the title from current heavyweight champion George Foreman.  The two would meet in the African nation of Zaire on October 30, 1974, the infamously dubbed "Rumble in the Jungle."  As usual, no one expected Ali to win against the younger, unbeaten Foreman.  Ali famously quipped "if you think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned, wait til I whup Foreman's behind!"  And whup it he did, in a major upset victory.  How come no one ever routed for this guy?  For years, it remained the world's most-watched sporting event, and you can watch it here.

Not having learned his lesson, Frazier wanted another shot at Ali.  The two would meet in Manila on October 1, 1975 for the "Thrilla in Manila," a fight that Ali would ultimately win, but not without taking a heavy toll.  Think Rocky after beating Drago.  Ali was so spent from the fight that he considered retirement.  He stated "I'm sore all over.  My arms, my face, my sides all ache.  I'm so, so tired.  There is a great possibility that I will retire.  You might have seen the last of me.  I want to sit back and count my money, live in my house and my farm, work for my people and concentrate on my family."

But he stayed in the ring for another five years.  His final fight was against Larry Holmes on October 2, 1980.  It was a loss for the champ, and not how he would have preferred to go out.  Sitting by his side was Rocky Balboa himself, Sylvester Stallone, who summed up the fight by saying it was like watching an autopsy on a man who was still alive.  You can watch that fight here.  Some time later, Ali would announce that he suffered from Parkinson's disease, which many attributed to the Holmes fight.

By 1998, Ali was suffering the full effects of Parkinson's, but it didn't keep him at home.  He partnered with Michael J. Fox to raise awareness of the disease.  In 2009, the two cut a PSA together, which you can watch here.  Ali even continued to make personal appearances.

Ali participated in a panel discussion on race in 
America at American University in June 1997.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Miller.)

For the next few years, Ali stayed out of the public spotlight.  Rumors of his declining health continued to spread, with his brother even declaring in 2013 that Ali could no longer speak and would be dead within days.  He'd prove his brother wrong and last another three years, before ultimately passing on June 2, 2016.  He was 74 years old.

He was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville.  This blogger arrived shortly after his passing.

In time, a permanent marker was placed on the site.

He took a few cups of love, he took one tablespoon of patience.
One tablespoon of generosity, one pint of kindness.
He took one quart of laughter, one pinch of concern.
And then he mixed willingness with happiness.
He added lots of faith and he stirred it up well.
Then he spread it over a span of a lifetime.
And he served to each and every person he met.

Rest in peace, Champ.


  • Cassius Clay was named after his father, who was himself named after Republican politician and abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay.

  • Over the course of his career, Ali was hit more than 200,000 times.

  • In 1981, Ali talked a suicidal man off of a ninth-floor ledge.  The story made national headlines.

  • Ali claimed that his colorful ringside manner was an homage to professional wrestler "Gorgeous George" Wagner.

  • In 2015, Ali published his memoirs, entitled The Greatest: My Own Story.  Pick up a copy from Amazon.

  • Just how tough was Ali?  Tough enough to take on Superman!  Pick up a copy of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali from Amazon.

  • In 1973, The Brady Bunch produced an episode wherein youngest boy Bobby pretended to be dying so he could meet his hero, Joe Namath.  The plot worked, so much so that in 1978, Diff'rent Strokes used it again, this time having Ali appear as Arnold's hero.  Watch a clip here.  And just for fun, here's the original Brady Bunch scene.  

  • Following the Manila fight, Ali fought against Richard Dunn, whom he knocked out using the "accupunch."  This technique was taught to him by Twaekondo expert Jhoon Rhee, who had himself learned the move from Bruce Lee.  Jhoon Rhee was something of a local legend in the Washington, DC area throughout the 70s and 80s, known for his commercial with the catchy jingle.  Check it out here.

  • Ali was a singer as well.  In 1963, he released his album "I am the Greatest!," which featured a cover of "Stand By Me."  Listen to it here.  Then pick up a copy of the album at Amazon.

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