Muhammad Ali is one of the most recognized faces on planet Earth; known not just for being one of the best fighters in the history of boxing, but for being one of the most knowledgeable persons of the twentieth century. Ali wasn’t always known by that name though, he was born Cassius Marcellus Clay on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, He and his younger brother Rudolph had many small conflicts like any brothers would have, but they were, and still are blessed with having a very close relationship (Hauser, 2).
Twelve-year-old Cassius was turned on to boxing after his brand-new bike was stolen at an annual Black fair called The Louisville Home Show (Jet). Joe Martin, a policeman who taught young kids how to box, was in a basement by the fair and after Cassius complained to him that he was going to “whup the person who stole his prized red-and-white Schwinn”(Jet). Officer Martin decided to push the frustrated youngster towards boxing. Six weeks later Cassius would win a three-minute, three-round split decision in his very first match (Hauser 7).
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Clay became more committed to boxing, fighting 108 amateur bouts, winning six Kentucky Golden Gloves Championships, two National Golden Gloves tournaments, and two National AAU titles (Ebony). Then the 1960 Rome Olympics came; a hesitant Cassius was afraid to travel over there in an airplane, but he eventually gave in and went, returning to America as a gold medal winner. Clay then came out with his very first published poem.
After winning the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, eighteen-year-old Cassius Clay was ready to turn pro. He still kept Fred Stoner, the man who trained him as an amateur as a trainer, but after his first win against an overmatched part-time fighter named Tunney Hunsaker, Clay switched to the late Archie Moore, who was still an active fighter (Tyers,15). They had a falling out though and Clay ended up meeting the popular Angelo Dundee. Eight days after the two began training with each other, Clay knocked out Herb Siler in the fourth round (Tyers,15).
Clay fought many successful bouts after that; he began to do what no boxer has ever done in the history of the sport: predicting the round in which he would win. Although he was knocked down a couple of times against Sonny Banks and Henry Cooper, the up-and-coming boxer was too quick and smart for any opponent. He even knocked out his former trainer Archie Moore in four rounds.
Next up was Sonny Liston, the World Champ who was then the equivalent to Mike Tyson in the late ’80s (Jet). Clay began to tease Liston, making fun of his looks and even predicting that he would demolish the champ in eight rounds. Very few believed that Clay had a chance; Liston thought nothing of the loudmouth youngster and trained for a quick two-round fight (Jet). Liston did not know that he was to face an opponent who was too fast and untouchable for him.
After fighting a fierce puncher while being temporarily blinded in the fifth round, Clay would use his quick fists to annoy the champ so bad that he refused to come out of the corner for the seventh round. Clay shook up the world and became the new World Heavyweight Champion, but he would shake up the world again two days later after announcing that he had joined the Nation Of Islam, becoming Muhammad Ali (Jet).
The year of ‘64 was a big year for Muhammad Ali; after becoming World Champ and changing his religion and name, he was quickly becoming the most identifiable and the most outspoken athlete in the world (Hauser, 20). Muhammad was seen a lot in public with the well-known leader Malcolm X, and many Americans wondered why a “good boy” would stoop so low. They continued to call him Cassius Clay and rooted for him to lose in upcoming matches, but Ali continued to be unstoppable in the ring.
In the summer of that same year, Ali married the beautiful Sonji Roi, a cocktail waitress and model, but Sonji’s conflict with him being extremely loyal to the Nation Of Islam caused them to get their marriage annulled after the controversial rematch with Liston in ‘65 (Ebony). Ali’s well-known “Phantom Punch” that knocked Liston out in the first round made the critics cry foul. Even former champ Joe Louis had a negative view of the Muslim boxer, stating that he was part of a racist organization and that he lacked the skills to compete with past greats like him and Rocky Marciano (Ebony).
The next opponent, Floyd Patterson, had the same views toward Ali, but he eventually paid the price by being destroyed in a 12-round bout. The horrible 1966 match vs. Ernie Terrell in which Ali purposely demanded Terrell to call him out by his real name and the Cleveland Williams bout in which he proved that he was a great knockout puncher validated his claim as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer of all time (Jet).
Muhammad Ali was too fast, too smart, and too skilled to be handled in the ring, and his skills in the ring along with the negative disapproval he was receiving as an outspoken member of the Nation of Islam made him one of the most notable athletes of the 1960s.
But Ali had another battle to face; in 1966, with the Vietnam War growing, the military needed more draftees (Tyers,24). Years earlier, the ex-Cassius Clay was not qualified to serve in the armed forces after failing military examination twice, but because more draftees were needed to serve in the war, the qualifying score was lowered, making Ali eligible for the draft (Tyers,24-25). As a dedicated fighter who did not want to end his career and as a Muslim who didn’t have “no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he refused to be drafted.
Many Americans felt that Ali betrayed them by betraying his country; those who already felt that they were betrayed when Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali were enraged at this “loudmouthed draft-dodging Black racist.” The sportswriters had a field day criticizing him, saying that he was a disgrace to America and to the boxing world. After his brutal victory over Ernie Terrell, in which he was accused of thumbing Terrell in the eye and in which he demanded that we call him by his Muslim name, the battle between Ali and the Armed Forces intensified (Hauser,26).
Many people supported Ali and picketed outside the United States Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station where the fighter was to be inducted as a draftee. But when Cassius Marcellus Clay was called, the man refused to step forward as he was required to do. After being warned that he would face severe penalties for refusing to cooperate, Ali still refused to step up when Cassius Marcellus Clay was called (Hauser,27).
The day that Ali refused to be drafted into the United States Armed Forces, a previous decision for the World Champ to be stripped of his title by the New York State Boxing Commission was ready to take place (Jet). Ali was indicted on May 8, 1967, by a federal grand jury in Houston, Texas (Jet). He still disagreed strongly about taking part in the Vietnam War, and many friends and fellow athletes like Jim Brown, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabar admired Ali’s strong stance (Ebony).
But Ali was convicted in the trial vs. the U.S. armed forces on June 19, and although his five-year prison sentence and the ten-thousand-dollar fine were overturned, his boxing passport was finished, and the Heavyweight Champ was stripped of his belt (Tyers,30). He was no longer the titleholder, but to the true boxing fans, Muhammad Ali was still the true World Champ.
Muhammad Ali was now banned from boxing, but life continued to go on. During Ali’s exile, Black and non-Black Americans began to feel where he was coming from and also refused to support the Vietnam War. Ali was determined to get back into the ring to get his title back, and after some going thru politics and an eight-round exhibition with three opponents the Supreme Court decision to permit him to fight again came later (Hauser,29). Ali was to return to the ring to fight a tough and promising young fighter, the late Jerry Quarry.
In 1970, Muhammad Ali was out to recapture the heavyweight crown that he and loyal fans believed that he rightfully owned. Ali did win the fight, but it was noticeable that the exile caused him to be slower than he was in the 1960s (Jet). He began taking more punches instead of dodging and dancing from them like he used to, but he was also stronger this time around. Plus, Ali began to gain a remarkable amount of earning power; the Quarry bout paid him more than any of his past championship fights (Ebony).
With no time for rest, Ali jumped back into training camp to train for the first of three well-known bouts against the current World Heavyweight Champion, “Smokin” Joe Frazier. The Ali-Frazier bout was taking place on March 8, 1971, three months after Muhammad Ali’s second fight after his return from his 3 1/2 year layoff (Ebony). This match pitted two champs against each other; “Smokin” Joe Frazier became champ after defeating Ali’s former amateur teammate Jimmy Ellis to combine the WBA and New York Heavyweight titles.
But since Ali didn’t lose his title in the ring, many fans believed that he was still the champ. And, since two undefeated champions were going head to head in Madison Square Garden in New York City, the fight was going to be a big event, with each man earning the previously unheard-of sum of $2,500,000 (Tyers,31).
Frazier was a tough opponent for Ali. The actual fight was even in the early rounds, but Ali was absorbing more punishment than he ever did before. In the fifteenth round, the unlikely happened: Frazier hit Ali on the jaw with a bone-crushing left hook that knocked him to the canvas. Ali did bounce back up as fast as he went down, but when the fight ended, it was clear that Frazier was the winner (Jet). It was Ali’s first professional loss, and although his enemies were now happy, he was not ready to quit.
Ali was ready to go on a comeback trail to avenge his loss and to reclaim his Heavyweight title. However, there was talk still going on about the ex-Cassius Clay belonging in jail for refusing to enter the Vietnam War (Tyers,33). But after Ali’s side strongly debated this, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed his conviction, and all criminal charges were dismissed.
On March 13 of that same year, Ken Norton gave Ali his second professional loss, but Ali won the rematch with a close but unanimous decision (Hauser,30). Ali-Frazier II eventually took place the next year, and although neither man was a champ, the fight was still a legendary one, with Ali coming out as a winner. Frazier demanded a rematch, but first, Ali had to travel to Kinshasa, Zaire to get his title back from the current undisputed World Champ, the indestructible George Foreman.
“The Rumble In The Jungle” was to take place in Africa because Ali’s camp wanted five million dollars for the fight against the new world champ (which was a very large amount back then.) Don King, an ex-con and up-and-coming boxing promoter, suggested that he could give both fighters five million each if the fight was held in a foreign country (Ebony). Also, Zaire’s president Mobuto Sese Seto was willing to give up the money in order to get his name known all over the world, and he figured that a championship bout featuring Muhammad Ali would do it (Ebony).
The American press did not hesitate to criticize the choice of location, but Ali was excited about being in a place operated entirely by Black people (Jet). Ali strongly believed that since he was a strong believer in Allah, he would win his heavyweight championship back. The original game plan discussed by Dundee was to dance around and attack Foreman from long range.
Muhammad Ali shook up the world once again when he regained the heavyweight crown by defeating George Foreman in Zaire. His victory caused many of his past critics to give up the respect that was owed to him, and President Ford even invited him to the White House for a visit (Tyers,40).
Ali went on to successfully defend his title against Ron Lyle in Las Vegas and Joe Bugner in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Jet).
Next up was Ali-Frazier III: THE THRILLA IN MANILA.
Muhammad Ali was ready to fight Joe Frazier for the third time. In the first fight in New York City, Frazier was a champ; in the second one, neither man was a champ, but this time, Ali was defending the heavyweight title. The tensions between the two came to a boil when the champ referred to the challenger as a “gorilla” in a joint press conference before the bout (Ebony).
After the vicious battle in Manila against Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali stated that the fight was the closest thing to death he knew of.
But the worst fight that Ali fought was not against another boxer but against Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki (Jet). Despite heavy criticism, Ali was determined to prove that a boxer can defeat a pro wrestler in the ring and give the people their money’s worth. The actual hybrid match was a boring event, with Ali throwing only six punches in fifteen-rounds against a crab-walking Inoki. Three months later, Ali faced Ken Norton for the third time, winning by decision. As Ali’s boxing skills began to decline, so did his marriage.
In the late 1970s, with his health deteriorating, Ali and his camp were searching for “easy” opponents. Someone who was a good choice was the 1976 Olympic gold medal winner Leon Spinks. Spinks’ promoter Butch Lewis suggested to the champ that if he chose not to retire, he should fight his man. Ali wasn’t about it at first, but after seeing Spinks fight to a draw against a mediocre heavyweight (Scott LeDoux), Ali decided that he wanted Lewis’s “easy” fighter (Hauser,39).
Since Ali was now facing an “easy” opponent, he took it “easy” in training. The hard work ethic that Ali was known for was nonexistent. Butch Lewis took note of the “ass-kissers” in Ali’s camp while he had Spinks whipped into excellent shape. All looked well until a sparring session that took place about ten days before the Ali-Spinks bout. Roy Williams, the sparring partner, hooked Spinks and caused a painful muscle tear around the rib cage that opened up every time he lifted his arm a certain way. After fears of a postponement (which would have caused critics to label him as a bum), Spinks received a painkiller for his injury, and the bout went on as scheduled (Tyers,45).
According to many who witnessed the actual bout, it was very disappointing. The out-of-shape Ali stayed on the ropes and assumed that Spinks was going to punch himself out (just like Foreman in Zaire.) But instead, Spinks punched nonstop. The painkiller wore off by round eleven, but by this time, the pain meant nothing as the “easy” challenger gained points against the once-unstoppable champ. And although Ali had Spinks backed up in the last round, it was too late. For the first time in his long career, Ali lost his title in the ring (Jet).
Despite offers against folks who were even less credible than Spinks (even against the idle Kent Green, the only man to knock out the ex-Cassius Clay in an amateur match), Ali finally decided that it was time to retire. The retirement allowed free time for Ali to travel around the world as a diplomat (Hauser,55). After an embarrassing trip to Africa (which can be discussed in detail in the book Muhammad Ali: His Life And Times), Ali decided to return to the platform that allowed him to be himself and impact people all over the world.
Against the wishes of many people who cared about him, Muhammad Ali was ready to come out of retirement to fight again. His mother, Odessa Clay, spoke out publicly about not wanting her son to go back the ring, but even she couldn’t change his mind.
Holmes had doubts about fighting his mentor, but the contracts for the bout were signed. While the fighters engaged in prefight hoopla, the controversy over Ali’s health was getting bigger. Ali was speaking softer and slower, and his reflexes were going down. But despite this, the Nevada State Athletic Commission granted him a boxing license. On October 2, 1980, twenty years after his very first fight against Tunney Hunsaker, Ali stepped into the ring, weighing in at 217 pounds. It was a one-sided bout from the beginning, with the younger Holmes taking advantage of his mentor. After ten rounds of witnessing “an autopsy on a man who’s still alive” (Sylvester Stallone), Ali’s corner threw in the towel. The fight was over (Tyers,66).
With his health deteriorating rapidly, somehow Ali had his mind set on fighting one more match. Ali was determined to retire from boxing as a winner, and his opponent was Trevor Berbick. Ali entered the ring for the final time on December 11, 1981 (Jet). The bout started two hours late, there were only two pairs of gloves for the entire undercard, and a cowbell was used for the ring bell.
From the start, the actual fight was a drag, with Ali looking sluggish while his mediocre opponent showed little skill. When it all was over, the judges scored the bout in Berbick’s favor (Hauser,77). The next morning, Ali finally announced that he was leaving the boxing ring for good.