Ali, Muhammad

I INTRODUCTION  Ali, Muhammad or Clay, Cassius (1942- ), African American heavyweight prizefighter, antiwar protester, and international ambassador of goodwill.

As the dominant heavyweight boxer of the 1960s and 1970s, Muhammad Ali won an Olympic gold medal, captured the professional world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions, and successfully defended his title 19 times. Ali's extroverted, colorful style, both in and out of the ring, heralded a new mode of media-conscious athletic celebrity. Through his bold assertions of black pride, his conversion to the Muslim faith, and his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War (1959-1975), Ali became a highly controversial figure during the turbulent 1960s. At the height of his fame, Ali was described as "the most recognizable human being on earth."

Ali's 1981 retirement from boxing did not diminish his status as an international public figure. Despite suffering from Parkinson's disease, Ali has remained on the world stage as an adherent of the Nation of Islam, an advocate of children and war victims, and a proponent of international understanding.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. He was the son of Marcellus Clay, a sign painter, and Odessa (Grady) Clay, a domestic worker. He was named for white Kentucky abolitionist Cassius M. Clay. Ali began boxing at the age of 12 under the tutelage of white Louisville policeman Joe Martin. Ali became enraged one day after discovering that his bicycle was missing, and he resolved to "whup whoever stole it." Martin, aware of the problem of undisciplined adolescent belligerence in Ali's tough neighborhood, convinced the boy that such verbal boasts were best complemented by a mastery of the principles of boxing.

An indifferent academic student who graduated 376th in his high school class of 391, Ali passionately devoted himself to amateur boxing, appearing in 108 bouts between 1955 and 1960. During this time, he won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, two National Golden Gloves crowns, and the gold medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy.

Returning triumphantly to Louisville, Ali was bitterly disappointed that he was not welcomed as an American hero in his segregated hometown. According to one story, Ali threw the Olympic medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a Louisville diner while wearing the medal around his neck.

Ali's professional debut as a heavyweight came in October 1960 with a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. Ali won his next 18 fights, 15 by knockouts. On February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, he waged his first challenge for the heavyweight championship in a match against Sonny Liston. Although many boxing experts believed Liston was invincible, the brash 22-year old Ali spent the weeks leading up to the fight entertaining reporters and fans with colorfully worded promises of his impending victory. In one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, Ali delivered his promises: Liston was unable to answer the bell for the start of the seventh round.

Shortly after the fight, Cassius Clay startled the sports world by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali defended his heavyweight crown in nine matches over the next two years. His title was revoked in 1967 when, citing his Islamic faith, he refused induction into the United States military and was sentenced to a five-year prison term. He was released on appeal.

Ali started fighting again in 1970, although the Supreme Court of the United States did not officially reverse his conviction for draft evasion until 1971. Knockout victories over Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena earned Ali a chance to regain his heavyweight crown. But on March 8, 1971, Ali lost a 15-round decision to Joe Frazier. This was the first loss of Ali’s career.

Ali regained the heavyweight championship on October 30, 1974, in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), with an 8th-round knockout of George Foreman. Over the next four years, Ali defended his title ten times, most famously in a 15-round victory over Frazier on October 1, 1975, in Manila, Philippines, a fight promoted as the "Thrilla in Manila." On February 15, 1978, in Las Vegas, Nevada, Ali relinquished the crown to Olympic champion Leon Spinks in a 15-round decision. However, he regained the championship on September 15, 1978, prevailing in a 15-round decision over Spinks in their rematch at the Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. With this victory, Ali became the first fighter to win the heavyweight crown three times.

Ali announced his retirement from boxing on June 27, 1979, but within a year he challenged the new heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes, for the crown. On October 2, 1980, in Las Vegas, Holmes dealt Ali the worst loss of his career, physically punishing the former champion before delivering a knockout blow in the 11th round. Ali retired permanently in December 1981 after losing a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick.

Ali's skills as a fighter included lightning-quick hands, a razor-sharp jab, agile footwork, and especially in the later part of his career, the ability to absorb punches from bigger and stronger opponents. As important as these physical skills were to Ali's success, what distinguished him as an athletic performer was his use of the boxing ring as a public stage. "It is Ali," suggested American scholar and baseball official Bartlett Giamatti, "who brought to the surface the actor in every athlete." A brilliant showman and provocateur, Ali made use of the media—especially television—as an integral part of his competitive strategy.

Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, introduced boasting and the taunting of one's opponent into the culture of boxing; Ali elevated the language of ridicule to an art form. A master of rhyming insult and a seminal contributor to the African American tradition of "signifying" or "playing the dozens," Ali transformed the prefight weigh-in from a procedural formality into an occasion for a display of creative verbal warfare.

In the days leading up to his championship match against Foreman in 1974, Ali regaled the international press corps on hand in Zaire with this exercise in matching couplets: "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. His hands can't hit what his eyes can't see. Now you see me, now you don't. George thinks he will, but I know he won't." In the fight itself, Ali flustered the physically imposing, harder-punching Foreman with a stealthy defensive maneuver he dubbed the "rope-a-dope."

Ali's celebrity status and instincts as a performer did not diminish his religious convictions or his defiant independence. His affiliation with the Nation of Islam came at a time when many Americans, and many of his fans, considered the Nation a subversive and dangerous organization. Because of his religious convictions, Ali refused to serve in the American military. "I have searched my conscience," he said, "and I find I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call." Similarly, he recited:


Keep asking me, no matter how long

On the war in Viet Nam, I sing this song

I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.


Such sentiments led some critics to portray Ali and the Nation of Islam as anti-American. In the sports arena, Ali's flamboyance and self-promotion challenged a traditional, unwritten code under which black athletes were expected to be dutiful, modest, and respectful of white authority.

V TRIUMPHS AND TRIBULATIONS  Since Ali retired from the ring, much of the attention focused on him has centered on his physical condition. He suffers from Parkinson's disease, a neurological disorder that causes tremors, loss of balance, memory lapses, and confusion. Doctors have asserted that Ali's symptoms were brought on by the repeated blows to the head he endured in the latter part of his boxing career. This has prompted medical organizations and other civic groups to lobby for the use of head gear in the ring or for the elimination of boxing altogether.

The young Ali was practically untouchable: Liston could land only two punches in their 1965 rematch. But in his late fights against the hard-hitting Frazier, Spinks, and Holmes, Ali took several hundred punches in every match. In the punishing 1980 loss to Holmes, Ali took 125 punches in the ninth and tenth rounds alone.

Ali's neurological disorder is essentially a motor-skills problem; he has retained his wit and his thought processes are clear. Despite his condition, he has remained an important figure on the world stage. In November 1990 Ali traveled to Iraq to meet with Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in a bid to forestall war in the Persian Gulf. In late 1996 Ali acted as a spokesperson for Operation USA in war-torn Rwanda.

Earlier in 1996 Ali lit the flame to open the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been honored for creating the Muhammad Ali Community and Economic Development Corporation, an organization that teaches job skills to low-income public housing residents in Chicago, Illinois.

In 1994 Sports Illustrated ranked Ali first on its "40 for the Ages List." In 1987 The Ring named him the greatest heavyweight champion of all time. Ali was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990 and into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983. The Muhammad Ali Museum opened in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1995.


Contributed By:
John Gennari