When Muhammad Ali passed away on 3 June 2016, world leaders, sports stars, and the public were quick to pay tribute to the charismatic heavyweight boxing champion. A sporting hero to fans around the world, he achieved some extraordinary things during his career. So where did it all start?
A Road Paved with Gold – Ali’s Journey to Professional Boxing
Originally named Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on 17 January 1942. He was twelve years old when he first took up boxing, having been inspired, according to New York Magazine, by Joe Martin, a local police officer, following the theft of his bike. According to the story, Clay was furious and vowed to fight the thief. When Joe Martin asked him if he knew how to fight, he replied “No, but I’d fight anyway.” Martin promised to teach him to box.
During the course of his amateur career, Clay had 100 fights and won all but five of them. He also picked up some prestigious boxing trophies along the way, including two national Golden Gloves awards and a national Amateur Athletic Union title.
In 1960, despite a fear of flying, he headed to Rome to represent the USA in the light heavyweight category of the Summer Olympic Games, where he won the gold medal. Later that year, he turned professional.
Muhammad Ali – World Championship Wins and Licensing Woes
Between 29 October 1960 and the end of 1963, Clay racked up nineteen professional wins, fifteen of which were by knockout, and didn’t lose a single fight. On 25 February, 1964, Clay took on Sonny Liston in an attempt to seize his world heavyweight title. By now, Clay had a reputation for trash-talking his opponents and he didn’t hold back on this occasion either, referring to Liston as a “big ugly bear”. During the fight, Clay suffered visual problems, possibly due to wound-sealing ointment getting into his eyes, but he triumphed by technical knockout (TKO), becoming the youngest ever fighter to win the title from a reigning heavyweight world champion in the process.
Not long after this, Clay, who had grown up while racial segregation was still happening in the USA and been deeply affected by it, announced he’d changed his name to Cassius X, after Malcolm X. However, he then converted to Islam and was renamed Muhammad Ali by the Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam.
Later, Ali stated: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
In May 1965, Ali defeated Liston in a rematch. He successfully defended his world title against Floyd Patterson later that year too. He went on to beat opponents such as Henry Cooper, Cleveland Williams, Ernie Terrell and Zora Folley. However, he caused controversy when he refused to be drafted into the US Army and, in March 1967, he was stripped of his world title. His licence was later suspended, and he received a five year prison sentence and a hefty fine.
Ali’s Most Famous Bouts – The Frazier and Foreman Fights
Although Ali wasn’t imprisoned and the verdict was eventually overturned, he was unable to fight again until October 1970. The break didn’t seem to have set him back, however, and some of the best-known fights of his career took place over the course of next few years.
In March 1971, he took on Joe Frazier for the first time, in what was billed “the Fight of the Century”. Frazier caught him with some powerful left hooks in the latter rounds and won by unanimous decision, treating Ali to his first professional defeat. Ali had his revenge when the pair next met, however, in January 1974, winning the non-title fight by unanimous decision.
Three years later, another famous fight took place in Zaire, featuring Ali and George Foreman. Nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle”, it was eventually won by Ali, who gained the victory by knockout.
Ali and Frazier’s third meeting, nicknamed “The Thrilla in Manila”, which took place in October 1975, also became one of boxing’s most celebrated fights. Ali started strong, but Frazier fought back to become the dominant force. When Frazier started to fade in the twelfth round, however, Ali regained control and eventually won by TKO.
By the time Ali finally retired in 1981, he’d had 61 fights. He’d won 56 of these, with 37 of his victories being by TKO, making him a true sporting hero. However, he will also be remembered for his political activism and showmanship – and, of course, his quotes. Whenever the late world champion’s name is mentioned, it is certainly hard not to think of what’s become his most famous phrase: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
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