How has Muhammad Ali's life and boxing career affected
(and been affected by) social developments in the Western world?
Muhammad Ali (Cassius Marcellus Clay) was born
17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky to parents of modest
circumstances. He started boxing in junior high, when he learned boxing
from a policeman at a local gym. By the time that Ali had reached high school,
he already intended to be a prizefighter and hoped to box in the Olympics.
As an amateur boxer, Ali attracted notice in 1960 by winning the Amateur
Athletic Union light heavyweight and Golden Gloves heavyweight championships.
At the Rome Olympics in 1960, Ali crushed his opponents to win a gold medal
in the light heavyweight division.
After turning pro, Ali defeated his first
opponents. Then on 25 February 1964, he fought, and knocked out, Sonny
Liston in seven rounds, thus becoming the new heavyweight world champion.
Ali defended his title nine times from 1965 to 1967 and became universally
recognized as world heavyweight champion after outpointing World Boxing
Association (WBA) champion Ernie Terrell in fifteen rounds on 6 February
1967. Ali often proclaimed his invincibility in verse and boasted, "I am
Soon after becoming heavyweight champion, Ali
decided to change his religion and joined the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims),
taking the Muslim name "Muhammad Ali." The Vietnam War then interrupted
Ali's career. In 1967, he was inducted into the military, but he refused
to serve, saying his religious beliefs forbade him to fight. While some Americans
praised Ali for risking prison to stand up for his beliefs, others called
him a draft dodger and traitor. The government charged him with violating
the Selective Service Act; his titles were taken from him; and he was not
allowed to box.
After a long court battle, Ali was convicted
of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in jail and fined $10,000 fine,
but in another lawsuit in 1970, a judge ruled that Ali could still
box professionally. The new heavyweight champion was Joe Frazier, and
a match was scheduled et for 8 March 1971. Newspapers called it "The Fight
of the Century." In the fifteenth round, Frazier knocked Ali down. Ali got
back up, but all the judges named Frazier the
That same year, Ali won his legal battle when
the U.S. Supreme Court said he was not guilty of draft evasion--He should
not have been drafted at all. Ali spent the next three years fighting other
champions, including Jerry Quarry, Floyd Patterson (making a brief comeback
attempt), Joe Bugner and Ken Norton, winning all but one fight to Ken Norton.
He also won a unanimous decision over Frazier on 28 January 1974, but Frazier
had lost the heavyweight title to George Foreman. So Ali next had to
Millions of people sat before their televisions
to watch the fight between Ali and Foreman, staged as "The Rumble in the
Jungle." Sixty thousand fans gathered at the stadium in Kinshasa in Zaire
on 30 October 1974. People favored Foreman, who was seven years younger than
the 32-year-old Ali, but Ali fought brilliantly, tiring his opponent using
"rope-a-dope" tactics. In round eight, Ali knocked out Foreman. He could
still "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," as he liked to say.
Ali had regained the undisputed world heavyweight
After defending his heavyweight title six
times--including a third fight with Joe Frazier--Ali lost it to Leon Spinks
on 15 February 1978 in a split decision. He regained the WBA title from Spinks
seven months later in a unanimous decision, becoming the first boxer to win
the heavyweight championship three times. In 1979 Ali announced his retirement,
at that point having lost only three times in 59 fights, but he returned
to fight World Boxing Council champion Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick
of Canada in 1981, losing both. Ali then retired
As Ali entered his forties, he looked ill. In
1984 it was assumed that he was suffering from a series of symptoms variously
known as "punch drunk" syndrome, or chronic encephalopathy of boxers, but
Ali had Parkinson's disease, an illness of the nervous system for which he
was taking medication. "I feel fine," he insisted. "I'm older and fatter,
but we all change."
Ali was selected to light the Olympic flame
at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta, Georgia.
17 January 1942, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali)
born in Louisville, Kentucky.
1960, won light-heavyweight gold medal at the
25 February 1964, fought, and knocked out Sonny
Liston; became heavyweight champion.
1964, joined Nation of
1967, inducted into the military but refused
8 March 1971, Ali lost to Joe Frazier.
Supreme Court ruled in favor of
28 January 1974, Ali won unanimous decision
30 October 1974, Ali knocked out George Forman
in the "Rumble in the Jungle."
15 February 1978, Ali lost the heavyweight title
in a split decision to Leon Spinks. Ali regained the title from Spinks seven
1980, Ali lost a comeback bout to Larry
1981, Ali lost a comeback bout to Trevor
1996, Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta.
the Greatest! is the Smithsonian exhibit of Muhammad Ali's gloves and
robe with further links. A detailed description of the life and
times of Muhammad Ali
exists, as does a short
of his career. A biography of
Ali is available from the
International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Good sites dedicated to the boxer are maintained
by the Louisville
Courier-Journal, the author
of a book about Ali (with his
ring record) and
a celebrity reference organization, the
Ali site, which contains information about the
offers an extensive collection (books, photos, lithographs, etc.), some of
which is of Muhammad Ali and other boxing merchandise for sale. The
site also has a biography of
When We Were
Kings (from the documentary of the Ali-Forman fight) home page also has
valuable information about Ali.
There are a number of biographies of Ali:
Timothy Dailey, Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time (1999);
Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times (1991); Larry Bortstein,
ed., Ali (1977). A good memoir is by Ali's doctor, Ferdie Pacheco,
Muhammad Ali: A View from the Corner (1992). Elliott
Gorn, ed., Muhammad Ali, the People's Champ (1995), is a collection
of papers tracing Ali's impact outside of boxing. Finally, two works
by Ali himself are recommended: Ali! Ali!: The Words of Muhammed
Ali (1979) and Greatest: My Own Story (1976).