Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, is widely recognised as one of the most significant athletes of the 20th century and the greatest boxer of all time. Nicknamed ‘The Greatest’ or the ‘G.O.A.T.’ (Greatest Of All Time) for his athletic feats, Ali also didn’t shy away from fighting for racial justice in America outside of the ring.
Though best remembered for his boxing and anti-war activism, Ali was also a talented poet who incorporated his artistic endeavours into his athletic pursuits, and later campaigned for rights for those suffering from Parkinson’s disease.
Here are 10 facts about Muhammad Ali.
1. He was named after anti-slavery activist Cassius Marcellus Clay
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. He and his father were named after a white farmer and abolitionist, Cassius Marcellus Clay, who emancipated 40 people previously enslaved by his father.
As a fighter, Clay became a member of the Nation of Islam alongside Malcolm X and had his name changed to Muhammad Ali by his mentor Elijah Muhammad on 6 March 1964.
2. He began fighting after his bike was stolen
When his bike was stolen, Clay went to the police. The officer was a boxing trainer and suggested the 12-year-old learned to fight, so he joined the gym. 6 weeks later, Clay won his first boxing match.
By 22, Ali was the world heavyweight champion, defeating the reigning champion Sonny Liston. It was in this fight that Clay famously promised to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”. He would soon become internationally renowned for his fast footwork and powerful punches.
3. He won an Olympic gold medal in 1960
In 1960, 18-year-old Clay travelled to Rome to represent the US in the boxing ring. He defeated all his opponents and won a gold medal. Upon his return to the United States, he was refused service at a diner in his home state while wearing his medal because of his race. He later told reporters that he threw the medal off a bridge into the Ohio River.
4. He refused to fight in the Vietnam War
In 1967, Ali refused to join the US Military and fight in the Vietnam War, citing religious reasons. He was arrested and stripped of his title. Further, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license, and he was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to prison and fined. During his suspension from boxing, Ali took up acting in New York for a brief time and performed in the title role of Buck White.
He appealed his conviction, and in 1970, the New York State Supreme Court ordered his boxing license to be reinstated. The US Supreme Court would go on to overturn the entirety of Ali’s conviction in 1971.
5. He was a poet
Muhammad Ali was known to compose verses with which he would taunt his opponents in the boxing ring. He preferred iambic pentameter. In 1963, he recorded a spoken word album called I Am the Greatest. His talk in the ring earned him the nickname the ‘Louisville Lip’.
6. Ali won 56 of the 61 professional fights of his career
Throughout his career, Ali defeated many fighters like Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Jerry Quarry and Joe Frazier. With each victory, Ali gained popularity and further solidified his reputation as heavyweight champion. Across his 56 victories, he delivered 37 knockouts.
7. He experienced his first loss as a pro in the ‘Fight of the Century’
After his license was reinstated, Ali worked his way back to the heavyweight championship. On 8 March 1971, he entered the ring against the undefeated Joe Frazier. Frazier would defend his championship title, beating Ali in the final round.
This night was dubbed the ‘Fight of the Century’ and landed Ali his first defeat as a professional boxer. He would go 10 more fights before losing again, and in 6 months’ time, he even defeated Frazier in a non-title match.
8. He fought in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ against George Foreman
In 1974, Ali went toe to toe with undefeated champion George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Zaire’s president at the time wanted positive publicity for the country and offered each of the fighters $5 million to fight in Africa. To ensure the fight would be viewed by an American audience, it took place at 4:00 am.
Ali won in 8 rounds and regained his heavyweight title after losing it 7 years prior. He employed a new strategy against Foreman, leaning on the ropes to absorb the blows from Foreman until he was tired out.
9. He was the first boxer to win the world heavyweight title 3 times
Ali won the heavyweight title 3 times in his career. First, he beat Sonny Liston in 1964. Upon his return to boxing, he defeated George Foreman in 1974. For the third chance at the title, Ali defeated Leon Spinks in 1978 after losing his title to him just 7 months earlier. This victory meant he was the first boxer in history to win the title 3 times.
10. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 42
Ali retired from boxing in 1979, to briefly return in 1980. He would retire for good in 1981 at age 39. At age 42, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease after showing signs of slurred speech and slowness. Nonetheless, he still made public appearances and travelled around the world for humanitarian and charitable causes.
In 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died of septic shock as the result of a respiratory illness in 2016.