Muhammad Ali's birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. He was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. His father, Cassius Clay, Sr., worked as a sign painter and his mother, Odessa, worked as a maid. Young Cassius had a younger brother named Rudy. The Clays weren't rich, but they weren't poor either.
During the time Cassius grew up, southern states like Kentucky were segregated by race. This meant that there were different facilities such as schools, restaurants, swimming pools, and restrooms for black people and white people. Laws called Jim Crow Laws enforced this separation and made life difficult on African Americans like Cassius.
Becoming a Boxer
When Cassius was twelve years old, someone stole his bike. He was very angry. He told a police officer that he was going to beat up the person who stole it. It turned out that the officer, Joe Martin, was a boxing coach. Joe told Cassius that he better learn how to fight before he tried beating anyone up. Cassius took Joe up on his offer and was soon learning how to box.
Cassius discovered that he had a real talent for boxing. He was much faster than other fighters his size. He could throw a quick punch and then dodge out of the way before the other fighter could react. He fought 105 fights as an amateur fighter, winning 100 and only losing 5. He also won several Gold Glove championships and was soon considered one of the best amateur light-heavyweight boxers in the world.
In 1960, Cassius traveled to Rome, Italy to participate in the Olympics. He defeated all his opponents to win the Gold Medal. Upon returning home, Cassius was an American hero. He decided to turn to professional boxing.
Cassius won the gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics. Source: Polish Press Agency via Wikimedia Commons
What was Muhammad Ali's boxing style?
Unlike many heavyweight boxers, Ali's boxing style was based more on quickness and skill than power. He looked to avoid or deflect blows rather than absorb them. Ali used an orthodox stance when fighting, but he would sometimes keep his hands down, tempting his opponent to take a wild punch. Ali would then counter attack. He also liked to "stick and move", meaning he would throw a quick punch and then dance away before his opponent could counter. He was an incredible athlete and only his superior speed and stamina allowed him to do this for 15 rounds.
Fight poster from 1961 bout vs. Donnie Fleeman. Source: Heritage Auction
Upon becoming a professional boxer, Ali had great success. He won several fights in a row, defeating most of his opponents by knockout. In 1964, he got his chance to fight for the title. He defeated Sonny Liston by knockout when Liston refused to come out and fight in the seventh round. Muhammad Ali was now the heavyweight champion of the world.
Trash Talk and Rhyming
Ali was also famous for his trash talk. He would come up with rhymes and sayings designed to cut down his opponent and pump himself up. He would talk trash before and during the fight. He would talk about how "ugly" or "dumb" his opponent was and often referred to himself as "the greatest." Perhaps his most famous saying was "I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."
Changing His Name and Losing His Title
In 1964, Ali converted to the religion of Islam. He first changed his name from Cassius Clay to Cassius X, but later changed it to Muhammad Ali. A few years later he was drafted into the army. He said he didn't want to join the army because of his religion. Because he refused to join the army, the boxing association didn't allow him to fight for three years starting in 1967.
Ali made his comeback to boxing in 1970. It was in the early 1970s that Ali fought some of his most famous fights. Three of Ali's most famous fights include:
Fight of the Century - The "Fight of the Century" took place on March 8, 1971 in New York City between Ali (31-0) and Joe Frazier (26-0). This fight went all 15 rounds with Ali losing to Frazier by decision. It was Ali's first loss as a professional.
Rumble in the Jungle - The "Rumble in the Jungle" took place on October 30, 1974 in Kinshasa, Zaire between Ali (44-2) and George Foreman (40-0). Ali knocked out Foreman in the eighth round to regain the title of Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of the World.
Thrilla in Manila - The "Thrilla in Manila" took place on October 1, 1975 in Quezon City, Philippines between Ali (48-2) and Joe Frazer (32-2). Ali won by TKO after the 14th round when the referee stopped the fight.
Muhammad Ali retired from boxing in 1981 after losing a bout to Trevor Berbick. He spent much of his time after boxing working for charities. He also suffered from Parkinson's disease starting in 1984. Because of his work with charities and helping other people, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 from President George Bush.
A pair of Ali's boxing gloves from 1974. Source: Smithsonian. Photo by Ducksters.
Interesting Facts about Muhammad Ali
He fought twenty-two professional heavyweight championship bouts.
He has been married four times and has nine children.
His youngest daughter, Laila Ali, was an undefeated professional boxer with a record of 24-0.
His trainer from 1960 to 1981 was Angelo Dundee. Dundee also worked with Sugar Ray Leonard and George Foreman.
Actor Will Smith portrayed Muhammad Ali in the movie Ali.
He once said that Sonny Liston smelled "like a bear" and that Ali was going to "donate him to a zoo."
He was voted the No. 1 heavyweight of the 20th century by the Associated Press.