Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942) is a retired American boxer and former three-time World Heavyweight Champion. To date, he remains the only man to have won the linear heavyweight championship three times (the linear title is recognized by tracing an – almost – unbroken lineage of titleholders going back over 100 years, with nearly every champion defeating the previous titleholder in the ring). Ali was also the winner of an Olympic Light-heavyweight gold medal. In 1999, Ali was crowned “Sportsman of the Century” by Sports Illustrated and the BBC.
Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky. He was named after his father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., who was named for the 19th century abolitionist and politician Cassius Clay. Ali changed his name after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964, subsequently converted to Sunni Islam in 1975 and then Sufism.
Ali was best known for his fighting style which he described as “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Throughout his career Ali made a name for himself with great handspeed, as well as swift feet and taunting tactics. While Ali was renowned for his fast, sharp out-fighting style, he also had a great chin, and displayed great courage and an ability to take a punch throughout his career. Ali also exclusively attacked the head of an opponent, usually ignoring a body attack.
Muhammad Ali was born on January 17, 1942. His father, Clay Sr., painted billboards and signs, and his mother, Odessa Grady Clay, was a household domestic. Although Clay Sr. was a Methodist, he allowed Odessa to bring up both Clay boys as Baptists.
Amateur career; Olympic gold
Ali was first directed toward boxing by Louisville police officer, Joe E. Martin, who encountered the then twelve-year-old Cassius Clay fuming over the fact that his bicycle had been stolen. However, without Martin knowing, he also began training with Fred Stoner at another gym. In this way, he could continue making $4 a week on Tomorrow’s Champions, a TV show that Martin hosted, while benefiting from the coaching of the more-experienced Stoner, who continued working with Ali throughout his amateur career.
Ali’s last amateur loss was to Kent Green of Chicago, who could say he was the last person to defeat the champion until Ali lost to Joe Frazier in 1971 as a pro. Under Stoner’s guidance, Muhammad Ali went on to win six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Ali’s record was 100 wins, with five losses, when he ended his amateur career.
Ali states (in his 1975 autobiography) that he threw his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service at a ‘whites-only’ restaurant, and fighting with a white gang. Whether this is true is still debated, although he was given a replacement medal during the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where he lit the torch to start the games.
Early professional career
After his Olympic triumph, Ali returned to Louisville to begin his professional career. There, on October 29, 1960, he won his first professional fight, a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker, who was the police chief of Fayetteville, West Virginia.
Standing tall, at 6-ft, 3-in (1.91 m), Ali had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. Rather than the normal style of carrying the hands high to defend the face, he instead relied on foot speed and quickness to avoid punches and carried his hands low.
From 1960 to 1963, the young fighter amassed a record of 19-0, with 15 knockouts. He defeated boxers such as Tony Esperti, Jim Robinson, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, Lamar Clark (who had won his previous 40 bouts by knockout), Doug Jones and Henry Cooper.
Ali built a reputation by correctly predicting the round in which he would “finish” several opponents, and by boasting before his triumphs. Ali admitted he adopted the latter practice from “Gorgeous” George Wagner, a popular professional wrestling champion in the Los Angeles area who drew thousands of fans. Often referred to as “the man you loved to hate,” George could incite the crowd with a few heated remarks, and Ali followed suit.
Among Ali’s victims were Sonny Banks (who knocked him down during the bout), Alejandro Lavorante, and the aged Archie Moore (a boxing legend who had fought over 200 previous fights, and who had been Ali’s trainer prior to Angelo Dundee). Ali had considered continuing using Moore as a trainer following the bout, but Moore had insisted that the cocky “Louisville Lip” perform training camp chores such as sweeping and dishwashing. He also considered having his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, as a manager, but instead hired Dundee.
Ali first met Dundee when the latter was in Louisville with light heavyweight champ Willie Pastrano. The teenaged Golden Glove winner traveled downtown to the fighter’s hotel, called Dundee from the house phone, and was asked up to their room. He took advantage of the opportunity to query Dundee (who was working with, or had, champions Sugar Ramos and Carmen Basilio) about what his fighters ate, how long they slept, how much roadwork (jogging) they did, and how long they sparred.
Following his bout with Moore, Ali won a disputed 10-round decision over Doug Jones in a matchup that was named “Fight of the Year” for 1963. Ali’s next fight was against Henry Cooper, who knocked Ali down with a left hook near the end of the fourth round. The fight was stopped in the fifth due to deep cuts over Cooper’s eyes.
Despite these close calls, Ali became the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title. Despite his impressive record, however, he was not widely expected to defeat the champ. The fight was scheduled for February 25, 1964 in Miami, Florida, but was nearly canceled when the promoter, Bill Faversham, heard that Ali had been seen around Miami and in other cities with the controversial Malcolm X. At the time, The Nation of Islam — of which Malcolm X was a member — was portrayed as a “hate group” by most of the media. Because of this, news of this association was perceived as a potential gate-killer to a bout where, given Liston’s overwhelming status as the favorite to win (7-1 odds), had Ali’s colorful persona and nonstop braggadocio as its sole appeal.
Faversham confronted Ali about his association with Malcolm X (who, at the time, was actually under suspension by the Nation as a result of controversial comments made in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, which he called a case of “the chickens coming home to roost”). While stopping short of admitting he was a member of the Nation, Ali protested the suggested cancellation of the fight. As a compromise, Faversham asked the fighter to delay his announcement about his conversion to Islam until after the fight. The incident is described in the 1975 book The Greatest: My Own Story by Ali (with Richard Durham).
During the weigh-in on the day before the bout, the ever-boastful Ali, who frequently taunted Liston during the buildup by dubbing him “the big ugly bear” (among other things), declared that he would “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee,” and, summarizing his strategy for avoiding Liston’s assaults, said, “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”
First title fight
Ali (still known as Cassius Clay until after the bout), however, had a plan for the fight. At the pre-fight weigh-in, Ali’s pulse rate was around 120, more that double his norm of 54. Liston, along with others, misread this as nervousness, and as such, was typically over-confident and unprepared for any result other than a quick knockout victory in his favor. In the opening rounds, Ali’s speed kept him away from Liston’s powerful head and body shots, as he used his height advantage to beat Liston to the punch with his own lightning-quick jab.
By the third round, Ali was ahead on points and had opened a cut under Liston’s eye. Liston regained some ground in the fourth, as Ali was blinded by a substance in his eyes. It is unconfirmed whether this was something used to close Liston’s cuts, or deliberately applied to Liston’s gloves for a nefarious purpose; however, Bert Sugar (author, boxing historian and insider) has recalled at least two other Liston fights in which a similar situation occurred, suggesting the possibility that the Liston corner deliberately attempted to cheat.
Whatever the case, Liston came into the fourth round aggressively looking to put away the challenger. As Ali struggled to recover his vision, he sought to escape Liston’s offensive. He was able to keep out of range until his sweat and tears rinsed the substance from his eyes, responding with a flurry of combinations near the end of the fifth round. By the sixth, he was looking for a finish and dominated Liston. Then, Liston shocked the boxing world when he failed to answer the bell for the seventh round, later claiming a shoulder injury as the reason. Muhammad Ali had indeed “Shook up the world!” just as he had promised.
In the rematch, which was held in May 1965 in relatively-remote Lewiston, Maine, Ali won by knockout in the first round as a result of what came to be called the “phantom punch.” Many believe that Liston, possibly as a result of threats from Nation of Islam extremists, or in an attempt to “throw” the fight to pay off debts, just wanted to call it a day and waited to be counted out (see Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston). Others, however, discount both scenarios and insist that it was a quick, chopping Ali punch to the side of the head that legitimately felled Liston.
From Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali
After winning the championship from Liston in 1964, Clay revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam (often called the Black Muslims at the time) and the Nation gave Clay the name Cassius X, discarding his surname as a symbol of his ancestors’ enslavement, as had been done by other Nation members. On Friday, March 6, 1964, Malcolm X took Clay on a guided tour of the United Nations building (for a second time). Malcolm X announced that Clay would be granted his “X.” That same night, Elijah Muhammad recorded a statement over the phone to be played over the radio that Clay would be renamed Muhammad (one who is worthy of praise) Ali (fourth rightly guided caliph). Only a few journalists (most notably Howard Cosell) accepted it at that time. Venerable boxing announcer Don Dunphy addressed the champion by his adopted name, as did British reporters. The adoption of this name symbolized his new identity as a member of the Nation of Islam.
Clay had discovered the Nation during a Golden Gloves tournament in Chicago in 1959, even writing a high school report on the organization. His school teachers at Louisville Central High were alarmed that a youngster with that much potential expressed interest in the nationalist faith. They dissuaded him from becoming involved. Many sportswriters of the early 1960s reported that it was Ali’s brother, Rudy Clay, who converted to Islam first (estimating the date as 1962). Others wrote that Clay had been seen at Muslim rallies two years before he fought Liston. Ali’s own version is that he did buy a copy of the “Muhammad Speaks” newspaper from a Muslim in Chicago, and a 45 rpm record by Minister Louis X (later Farrakhan) called “A White Man’s Heaven is a Black Man’s Hell.”
Aligning himself with the Nation of Islam made him a lightning rod for controversy, turning the outspoken but popular champion into one of that era’s most recognizable and controversial figures. Appearing at rallies with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and declaring his allegiance to him at a time when mainstream America viewed them with suspicion — if not outright hostility — made Ali a target of outrage, as well as suspicion. Ali seemed at times to provoke such reactions, with viewpoints that wavered from support for civil rights to outright support of separatism. For example, Ali once stated, in relation to integration: “We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don’t want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.” And in relation to inter-racial marriage: “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters.” Indeed, Ali’s religious beliefs at the time included the notion that the white man was “the devil” and that white people were not “righteous.” Ali claimed that white people hated black people.
Ali converted from the Nation of Islam sect to mainstream Sunni Islam in 1975. In a 2004 autobiography, written with daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali, Muhammad Ali attributes his conversion to the shift toward Sunni Islam made by W.D. Muhammad after he gained control of the Nation of Islam upon the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975.
Vietnam War and exile
In 1964, Ali failed the U.S. Armed Forces qualifying test because his writing and spelling skills were sub-par. However, in early 1966, the tests were revised and Ali was reclassified as 1A. This classification meant he was now eligible for the draft and induction into the U.S. Army. This was especially important because the United States was engaged in the Vietnam War. When notified of this status, he declared that he would refuse to serve in the United States Army and publicly considered himself a conscientious objector. Ali stated that “War is against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.” Ali also famously said in 1966: “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong … They never called me nigger.”
From his rematch with Liston in May 1965, to his final defense against Zora Folley in March 1967, he successfully defended his title nine times, an active schedule for that period.
In November 1965 Ali fought Floyd Patterson in his second title defense including his rematch with Liston. Patterson lost by technical knockout at the end of the 12th round in a bout that mirrored what he would later do against Ernie Terrell, savagely beating his opponent but refusing to knock him out. Ali was scheduled to fight WBA champion Ernie Terrell in a unification bout in Toronto on March 29, but Terrell backed out and Ali won a 15-round decision against substitute opponent George Chuvalo. He then went to England and defeated Henry Cooper by stoppage on cuts and Brian London. Ali’s next defense was against German southpaw Karl Mildenberger, the first German to fight for the title since Max Schmeling. In one of the tougher fights of his life, Ali stopped his opponent in round 12.
Ali returned to the United States in November 1966 to fight Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams in the Houston Astrodome, in front of an indoor record 35,460 fight fans. A year and a half before the fight, Williams had been shot in the stomach at point-blank range by a Texas policeman. As a result, Williams went into the fight missing one kidney and 10 feet of his small intestine, and with a shriveled left leg from nerve damage from the bullet. Ali beat Williams in three rounds.
Howard Cosell speaking of the Cleveland Williams fight described Ali’s performance,
The greatest Ali ever was as a fighter was in Houston against Cleveland Williams. That night he was the most devastating fighter who ever lived. He dominated from the opening bell, knocked Williams down four times, and pummeled him until Williams was spitting blood. It was incredible that he could hand out a beating like that, and not once get touched himself. Ali had always been faster than his opponents, but now he was maturing and was bigger too. He was bold and young and strong and skilled, just coming into his prime as a fighter. That handsome child, all those years. it doesn’t seem possible, but when I think about it, it’s true, Ali is as old now as I was then.
On February 6, 1967, Ali returned to a Houston boxing ring to fight Terrell in what became one of the uglier fights in boxing. Terrell had angered Ali by calling him Clay, and the champion vowed to punish him for this insult. During the fight, Ali kept shouting at his opponent, “What’s my name, Uncle Tom … What’s my name?” Terrell suffered 15 rounds of brutal punishment, losing 13 rounds on two judges’ scorecards, but Ali did not knock him out. Analysts, including several who spoke to ESPN on the sports channel’s “Ali Rap” special, speculated that the fight continued only because Ali wanted to thoroughly punish and humiliate Terrell. After the fight, Tex Maule wrote, “It was a wonderful demonstration of boxing skill and a barbarous display of cruelty.”
Ali’s last fight in his first reign as world heavyweight champion was on March 22, 1967 against the 35-year old Zora Folley who was seen as something of a journeymen fighter coming into this bout. Folley was knocked out in the 7th round.
Appearing for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces on April 28, 1967 in Houston, he refused three times to step forward at the call of his name. An officer warned him he was committing a felony punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. Once more, Ali refused to budge when his name was called. As a result, on that same day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title. Other boxing commissions followed suit.
At the trial two months later, the jury, after only 21 minutes of deliberation, found Ali guilty. The judge imposed the maximum sentence. After a court of appeals upheld the conviction, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. During this time, people turned against the war, and support for Ali grew. Ali came to be respected as a hero and athlete who stood up for his principles. Ali financially supported himself by visiting many college universities to give speeches across the country and starring a play called “Buck White.”
The Fight of the Century and the underdog again
In 1970, Ali was allowed to fight again. With the help of a state senator, he was granted a license to box in Georgia because it was the only state in America without a boxing commission. In October 1970, he stopped Jerry Quarry on a cut after three rounds. In defeating Quarry, Ali had been physically strong, perhaps stronger than in the past, but he’d also been slower and that was an ominous portent. Ferdie Pacheco notes “That was when he discovered something very good and very bad. Very bad in that it led to the physical damage he suffered later in his career, very good in that it got him back the championship. He discovered he could take a punch.” Shortly after the Quarry fight, the New York State Supreme Court ruled that Ali had been unjustly denied a boxing license. Once again able to fight in New York, he fought Oscar Bonavena at Madison Square Garden in December 1970. After a tough 14 rounds, Ali stopped Bonavena in the 15th, paving the way for a title fight against Joe Frazier, who was himself undefeated.
Ali and Frazier met in the ring on March 8, 1971, at Madison Square Garden. The fight, known as ‘”The Fight of the Century,” was one of the most eagerly anticipated bouts of all time and remains one of the most famous. It featured two skilled, undefeated fighters, both of whom had legitimate claims to the heavyweight crown. The fight lived up to the hype, and Frazier punctuated his victory by flooring Ali with a hard left hook in the 15th and final round. Frank Sinatra — unable to acquire a ringside seat — took photos of the match for Life magazine. Legendary boxing announcer Don Dunphy and actor and boxing aficionado Burt Lancaster called the action for the broadcast, which reached millions of people.
Frazier retained the title on a unanimous decision, dealing Ali his first professional loss. However, Ali won a more important victory on June 28, 1971, when the Supreme Court reversed his conviction for refusing induction by unanimous decision in Clay v. United States.
In 1973, after a string of victories over top heavyweight opposition (notable were Jimmy Ellis, Jurgen Blin, Al Lewis, and a Floyd Patterson rematch) in a campaign to force a rematch with Frazier, Ali split two bouts with Ken Norton (in the bout that Ali lost to Norton, Ali suffered a broken jaw), before beating Frazier (who had lost the title to George Foreman) on points in their 1974 rematch. This victory earned him another title shot — but this time against a seemingly-invincible Foreman.
The Rumble in the Jungle
In one of the biggest upsets in boxing history, Ali regained his title on October 30, 1974 by defeating champion George Foreman in their bout in Kinshasa, Zaire. Hyped as “The Rumble In The Jungle,” the fight was promoted by Don King.
Almost no one, not even Ali’s long-time supporter Howard Cosell, gave the former champion a chance of winning. Analysts pointed out that Joe Frazier and Ken Norton had given Ali four tough battles in the ring and won two of them, while Foreman had knocked out both of them in the second round. As a matter of fact, so total was the domination that, in their bout, Foreman had knocked down Frazier an incredible six times in only four minutes and 25 seconds.
During the bout, Ali employed an unexpected strategy. Leading up to the fight, he had declared he was going to “dance” and use his speed to keep away from Foreman and outbox him. However, in the first round, Ali headed straight for the champion and began scoring with a right hand lead, clearly surprising Foreman. Ali caught Foreman nine times in the first round with this technique but failed to knock him out. He then decided to take advantage of the young champion’s weakness: staying power. Foreman had won 37 of his 40 bouts by knockout, mostly within three rounds. Eight of his previous bouts didn’t go past the second round. Ali saw an opportunity to outlast Foreman, and capitalized on it.
In the second round, the challenger retreated to the ropes – inviting Foreman to hit him, while counterpunching and verbally taunting the younger man. Ali’s plan was to enrage Foreman and absorb his best blows to exhaust him mentally and physically. While Foreman threw wide shots to Ali’s body, Ali countered with stinging straight punches to Foreman’s head. Foreman threw hundreds of punches in seven rounds, but with decreasing technique and potency. Ali’s tactic of leaning on the ropes, covering up, and absorbing ineffective body shots was later termed “The Rope-A-Dope.”
By the end of the seventh round, Foreman was exhausted. In the eighth round, Ali dropped Foreman with a combination at center ring and Foreman failed to make the count. Against the odds, Ali had regained the title. Many years later, Foreman would become champ again at age 45. Muhammad Ali (Foreman’s best friend at the time) did not attend the title bout. When asked why, he said “I would deviate attention from George. It was his moment, not mine.”
The “Rumble in the Jungle” was the subject of a 1996 Academy Award winning documentary film, When We Were Kings. The match was ranked seventh in the British television program The 100 Greatest Sporting Moments.
Following his victory, Ali’s evolution in mainstream American culture from villain to beloved hero came full circle when he was invited to the White House in late 1974 by President Gerald Ford.
The Champ again and Thrilla in Manila
After beating Foreman, Ali would have a successful string of title defenses. In March 1975, Ali faced Chuck Wepner in a bout that inspired the original Rocky. While it was largely thought that Ali would dominate, Wepner surprised everyone by not only knocking Ali down in the ninth round, but nearly going the distance. Ali eventually stopped Wepner in the fading minutes of the 15th round, but Wepner’s display of courage and resilience gave Sylvester Stallone, then an aspiring writer, actor and director, the basis of the plot for the first of the Rocky franchise, which led to five sequels that have endured for 30 years. In May 1975, Ali faced Ron Lyle, who lost by technical knockout in the 11th round after a barrage of punches by Ali. Two months later, in July 1975, Ali won a 15-round decision against Joe Bugner who was criticized by the press for resorting to defensive tactics rather than mounting an attack. “He should have quit after Bugner”, says Ferdie Pacheco “The time was right, he had his health. If Ali retired after Malaysia, he’d be far ahead of the game today.” Anticipating the devastating brutality that would come to define Ali’s next bout, many would be inclined to agree.
In October 1975, Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time. The bout was promoted as the Thrilla in Manila by Don King, who had ascended to prominence following the Ali-Foreman fight. The anticipation was enormous for this final clash between two great heavyweights. Ali believed Frazier was “over the hill” by that point, and his overconfidence may have caused him to train less than he could have. Ali’s frequent insults, slurs and demeaning poems increased the anticipation and excitement for the fight, but also enraged a determined Frazier. Regarding the fight, Ali famously remarked, “It will be a killa… and a chilla… and a thrilla… when I get the gorilla in Manila.”
The fight lasted 14 grueling rounds in temperatures approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ali won many of the early rounds, but Frazier staged a comeback in the middle rounds. By the late rounds, however, Ali had reasserted control and the fight was stopped when Frazier was unable to answer the bell for the 15th and final round (his eyes were swollen closed). Frazier’s trainer, Eddie Futch, refused to allow Frazier to continue. Ali, in one of the toughest fights of his entire career, was quoted as saying, “It was the closest thing to death that I could feel.” Another version had Ali saying, “It was like death. Closest thing to dyin’ that I know of.”
The Greatest grows older
Ali, after Manila, was the best known and possibly the most popular person in the world. By now even people who once disliked what Ali stood for accepted him for what he was. As Jerry Izenberg says, “Ali reached a point where, when people looked at him, they didn’t see black or white, they saw Ali. And for a long time, that mystified him. He expected black people to love him and to crowd around him, but then he realized white people loved him too, and that made him very happy. In early 1976, Ali would go on to face journeymen fighters such as Jean-Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn (Ali’s last knockout of his career), winning easily inside the distance against both. In April 1976, an out-of-shape Ali out-pointed the tough, young brawler Jimmy Young by decision. Young, who would later defeat George Foreman, made Ali appear slow and immobile.
Ali’s next match after Dunn was a June 25 exhibition against the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki. Although widely perceived as a publicity stunt, the match would have a long-term detrimental affect on Ali’s mobility. Inoki spent much of the fight on the ground trying to damage Ali’s legs, while Ali spent most of the fight dodging the kicks or staying on the ropes. At the end of 15 rounds, the bout was called a draw. Ali’s legs, however, were bleeding, leading to an infection. He suffered two blood clots in his legs as well.
Nevertheless, in September, at Yankee Stadium, Ali faced Ken Norton in their third fight, with Ali winning a close 15-round decision. Many believe that Norton only lost the disputed decision because of a mistake his corner had made. Ali was a shadow of his former self. “He should have quit after Bugner”, Unlike the Young fight, Ali trained hard for the rematch with Norton, but his performance in the ring made apparent to even the most ardent fans that his skills were in decline.
Ali fought an insipidly boring fight against Alfredo Evangelista in May, which still went fifteen rounds. Even longtime Ali supporter Howard Cosell remarked “It was one of the worst fights he ever fought, Evangelista couldn’t fight a lick, and by then Ali wasn’t fighting much either. The fact that the bout went fifteen rounds told you that Ali was shot.” For the first time there was serious speculation in the press when Ali would, or should retire. But on September 29 he was in the ring again, against a particularly dangerous foe, Earnie Shavers. Shavers was regarded as the hardest puncher in boxing. Fifty-two of his fifty-four wins came by knockout, twenty in the first round. And because Ali was at a point in his own career where he was getting hit, the bout was viewed with mixed emotions by the Ali entourage and by Ali himself. A further source of concern was that Ali was beginning to have slurring of the speech.
Sitting with Ali alone in the Hotel Statler across the street from Madison Square Garden a day or two before the fight, Sports journalist Jerry Izenberg reportedly told Ali,
Let me tell you something. Do yourself a favor. Sit down and play back that roach spray commercial you just made, because I listened to it ten times before I was able to make out the word “fog.” I couldn’t understand what you were saying. And then take any of the tapes you made over the years and listen to the way you used to be’ And I told him, ‘You know, there was once in this world a pathologist named Martland. And Martland might not have had all the answers, but it was his theory that, if you stop fighting tommorow and never get in the ring again, it will take two more years for the disintegration of your brain to stop. That’s something you should think about after you fight Earnie Shavers tommorow night. Because it would be a horrible tragedy if you were to wind up punch-drunk, where is what Martland’s syndrome is all about. ‘ “
Shavers almost knocked Ali out in the second round. For the entire night Ali fought on the edge, getting by on guile and courage to complement his fading skills. By the fourteenth round Shavers had Ali in trouble and Ali had to dip into his reserve of strength just to get back into his corner. At the opening of the fifteenth Ali could barely stand. However the last three minutes of the fifteenth round were considered to be some of the finest of Ali’s career, and sum up what Ali was about, even though he was long past his prime. Late in the round he even had Shavers in trouble. Ali won a close decision. The day after the fight, the promoter of the fight, Garden matchmaker Teddy Brenner privately took Ali aside and said “Champ, why don’t you announce your retirement?’ He said ‘What for?’ And I told him, ‘Because sooner or later some kid who couldn’t carry your bucket is going to be you.” Brenner further demonstrated his concern for Ali’s welfare by holding a press conference and announcing Madison Square Garden would never promote another Ali fight while he was still matchmaker. At the press conference he told the media,
As long as I’m here, Madison Square Garden will never make an official Ali fight again. This is a young man’s game. Ali is thirty-five, he has half his life ahead of him. Why take chances? There’s nothing more for him to prove. I don’t want him to come over to me some day and say, ‘What’s your name? The trick in boxing is to get out at the right time, and the fifteenth round last night was the right time for Ali.
Even worse, following the fight, Ali’s corner doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, left Ali’s entourage after Dr. Nardiello, who was with the New York State Athletic Commission, gave him a laboratory report that showed Ali’s health was deteriorating. Pacheco made his decision to leave when he received no response to letters he sent out to Ali’s manager Herbert Muhammad, trainer Angelo Dundee, and Ali’s wife, which informed them of damage to Ali’s kidneys. In Ali’s autobiography Ferdie Pacheco speaking of his decision to leave Ali’s entourage remarked,
It all progresses in a fighter’s life. The legs go, his reflexes aren’t what they used to be, he cuts more easily, the injuries accelerate. And the older you get the less recuperative powers are. Ali at twenty three could have absorbed Frazier in Manila and shaken it off, but age thirty-three was another story. If I had to pick a spot to tell him, “You’ve got all your marbles, but don’t go on anymore, ‘no question, it would have been after Frazier. Thats when it really started to fall apart. He began to take beatings, not just in fights but in the gym. Even sparring, he’d do rope-a-dope because he couldn’t avoid punches the way he did when he was young. And I don’t care how good you are at rope-a-doping. If you block ninety-five punches out of a hundred, the other five are getting in. The Shavers fight was the final straw for me. After that fight, Dr. Nardiello, who was with the New York Sate Athletic Commission, gave me a laboratory report that showed Ali’s kidneys were falling apart. Instead of filtering out blood and turning it into urine, pure blood was going through. That was bad news for the kidneys; and since everything in the body is interconnected, we were talking about the deterioration of Ali’s health.
Olympic champion Leon Spinks finally dethroned Ali by decision in February 1978. The fight was criticized by many fans, since Spinks was a relative rookie with only seven professional bouts in his career and Ali had lost the title in a bout that was initially booked as a “safe fight.” However, Ali rededicated himself to training and claimed back his title for an unprecedented third time in their September 1978 rematch. He then retired at age 37 in June 1979.
During his first retirement he served as an Ambassador for Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Ali’s retirement was short lived, many speculate because of the money offered in a comeback bout, and he returned to face new champion Larry Holmes in 1980. Due to increasing media pressure who by now were questioning Ali’s health, The Nevada State Athletic Commission had Ali examined at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic as a prerequisite to being granted a boxing license. An examination of Ali’s speech detected a mild ataxic dysarthia (difficulty in coordinating the muscles used in speaking). In physical testing it was noted that Ali did not hop with expected agility and in a finger to nose test he showed a slight degree of missing his target, motor skills that were more pronounced with fatigue. Despite these warning signs that Ali was perhaps showing early signs of brain damage, Dr. Howard felt there were no specific findings to prohibit him from fighting. Tests also revealed that Ali actually had a hole in his membrane, however Don King allowed the fight to go on. Despite Ali’s claim that Holmes would be “mine in nine” he was soundly defeated by Holmes. Ali, though looking fit and trim, was already on medication for what developed into Parkinsons syndrome, but was misdiagnosed as a Thyroid condition. Ali as a result was unable to recover his former skills or stamina and was left dehydrated and weak. Two days before the fight Ali was physically unable to run half a mile. With all the warning signs ignored and the fight allowed to go on, Holmes dominated a nearly motionless Ali throughout the fight in a brutal beating, speculated to have done more damage to Ali’s already questionable health. Despite his taunts and posturing Ali rarely threw a punch. Sylvester Stallone, speaking of the fight compared it to “an autopsy on a man who’s still alive.” Angelo Dundee, following a very vocal screaming match with Drew Bundini Brown, refused to let his man come out for the 11th round, in what became Ali’s first and only loss by anything other than a decision. Ali’s final fight, a loss by unanimous decision after 10 rounds, was to up-and-coming challenger Trevor Berbick in 1981.
Muhammad Ali defeated almost every top heavyweight in his era, which has been called the golden age of heavyweight boxing. Ali was named “Fighter of the Year” by Ring Magazine more times than any other fighter, and was involved in more Ring Magazine “Fight of the Year” bouts than any other fighter. He is an inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and holds wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees. He is also one of only three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. He is regarded as one of the best pound for pound boxers in history. He was a masterful self-promoter, and his psychological tactics before, during, and after fights became legendary. It was his athleticism and boxing skill, however, that enabled him to scale the heights and sustain his position for so many years.
In 1978, three years before Ali’s permanent retirement, the Board of Aldermen in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky voted 6–5 to rename Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard. This was controversial at the time, as within a week 12 of the 70 street signs were stolen. Earlier that year, a committee of the Jefferson County Public Schools considered renaming Central High School in his honor, but the motion failed to pass. At any rate, in time, Muhammad Ali Boulevard—and Ali himself—came to be well accepted in his hometown. He was the recipient of the 1997 Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
Ali began showing symptoms of Parkinsons going back several years, and the signs of his illness became slowly more evident over time. At first most physicians had difficulty detecting even mild symptoms of the disease. Records from the UCLA medical Center and Mayo Clinic showed some slurring of speech going back as early as 1978 and Ali was evaluated in July 1980 but no signs of organic brain disease were discovered. Three weeks before his fight with Larry Holmes his personal physician from Chicago made the assessment that Muhammad appeared myxedematous [hyperthyroid characterized by dry skin and loss of mental and physical vigor]. In June 1981 Muhammad was diagnosed as having pneumococcal pneumonia and was treated with antibiotics. In August 1981 he was hospitalized again at UCLA where people first began to notice slurred speech, Ali was examined by a neurologist who found minor imbalance in walking quickly but the rest of the examination was normal. A year later he was hospitalized again in July 1982 because he complained to feel fatigued and have slurring of speech. He complained, in his words that he was walking like an old man and his right leg felt sluggish. Friends said he was drooling saliva from time to time. By this time has handwriting was deteriorating. The hospital staff observed that his responses were slowing and that he had slurring of speech with low volume. However he showed no decline in intelligence and his walking and balance were said to be normal. In October 1983 Muhammad was again admitted to UCLA. His speech and walking continued to worsen and he’d developed a tremor in his hand as well. He reported in his own words that he was moving about as if he was a mummy. He had an EEG, which showed some disorganization of rhythm but was still not highly abnormal. He underwent comprehensive neurophychological testing, which revealed deficits in the tracking trains of learning anything but the simplest new material, thereby suggesting early organicity, which means due to brain damage. He was put on Sinemet, which is the most potent drug used for treating, “Parkinsonism”. However his overall problems remained and in September 1984 Ali checked into Columbia-Presbyterian. After eight days of tests, Ali was released, and a brief public statement was issued by his supervising physician, Stanley Fahn, explaining that Ali was exhibiting “some mild symptoms of Parkinson’s syndrome“, but that the condition was not degenerative and that Ali was responding well to medication. Questions regarding Ali’s health continued to spread especially regarding whether or not his ill health was directly caused by boxing. Ultimately as his condition continued to worsen it became revealed that unfortunately his disease had been caused from too many blows to the head.
Dr. Stanley Fahn recalls,
At the time he requested that I not state publicly what in my view was the cause of his Parkinsonism. But he’s asked that I speak freely and completely, so I’ll tell you my diagnosis that it was post-traumatic Parkinsonism due to injuries from fighting. Muhammad himself told me he thinks most of the damage came from the third Frazier fight, the one in Manila. That may be where he started to get his damage but its highly unlikely that it all came from one fight. My assumption is that his physical condition was caused from repeated blows to the head over time. One might argue that his Parkinsonism could and should have been detected earlier, it would have kept him out of the last few fights and saved him from later damage. It was bad enough to have some damage, but getting hit in the head those last few years might have made his injuries worse. Also, since Parkinsonism causes amoung other things, slowness of movement, one can question whether the beating Muhammad took in his last few fights was because he was suffering from Parkinsonism and couldn’t move as quickly as before in the ring, and thus was more susceptible to being hit.
Despite the disability, he remains a beloved and active public figure. Recently he was voted into Forbes Celebrity 100 coming in at number 13 behind Donald Trump. He remained politically active though his views gradually became more conservative, in 1984 after he supported Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful bid for the White House he switched his support to President Ronald Reagan. In 1988 he again supported incumbent George H.W. Bush, and caused some controversy, as Ali once the anti-establishment figure, was now supporting candidates whose policies benefited neither the working class blacks nor whites. In 1985, he served as a guest referee at the inaugural WrestleMania event. In 1987 he was selected by the California Bicentennial Foundation for the U.S. Constitution to personify the vitality of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights in various high profile activities. Ali rode on a float at the 1988 Tournament of Roses Parade, launching the U.S. Constitution’s 200th birthday commemoration. He also published an oral history, Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser, in 1991. Ali received a Spirit of America Award calling him the most recognized American in the world. In 1996, he had the honor of lighting the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.
He has appeared at the 1998 AFL (Australian Football League) Grand Final, where Anthony Pratt invited him to watch the game. He also greets runners at the start line of the Los Angeles Marathon every year.
In 1999, Ali received a special one-off award from the BBC at its annual BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award ceremony, namely the BBC Sports Personality of the Century Award in which he received more votes than the other four contenders combined. His daughter Laila Ali also became a boxer in 1999, despite her father’s earlier comments against female boxing in 1978: “Women are not made to be hit in the breast, and face like that… the body’s not made to be punched right here [patting his chest]. Get hit in the breast… hard… and all that.”
On September 13, 1999, Ali was named “Kentucky Athlete of the Century” by the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in ceremonies at the Galt House East.
In 2001, a biographical film, entitled Ali, was made, with Will Smith starring as Ali. The film received mixed reviews, with the positives generally attributed to the acting, as Smith and supporting actor Jon Voight earned Academy Award nominations. Prior to making the Ali movie, Will Smith had continually rejected the role of Ali until Muhammad Ali personally requested that he accept the role. According to Smith, the first thing Ali said about the subject to Smith was: “You ain’t pretty enough to play me.”
On November 17, 2002, Muhammad Ali went to Afghanistan as “U.N. Messenger of Peace”. He was in Kabul for a three-day goodwill mission as a special guest of the United Nations.
He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony on November 9, 2005, and the “Otto Hahn peace medal in Gold” of the United Nations Association of Germany (DGVN) in Berlin for his work with the US civil rights movement and the United Nations (December 17, 2005).
On November 19, 2005 (Ali’s 19th wedding anniversary), the $60 million non-profit Muhammad Ali Center opened in downtown Louisville. In addition to displaying his boxing memorabilia, the center focuses on core themes of peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth.
According to the Ali Center website, “Since he retired from boxing, Ali has devoted himself to humanitarian endeavors around the globe. He is a devout Muslim, and travels the world over, lending his name and presence to hunger and poverty relief, supporting education efforts of all kinds, promoting adoption and encouraging people to respect and better understand one another. It is estimated that he has helped to provide more than 22 million meals to feed the hungry. Ali travels, on average, more than 200 days per year.”
At the FedEx Orange Bowl on January 2, 2007, Ali was an honorary captain for the Louisville Cardinals wearing their white jersey, number 19. Ali was accompanied by golf legend Arnold Palmer, who was the honorary captain for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, and Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade.
A youth club in Ali’s hometown and a species of rose (Rosa ali) have also been named after him. On June 5, 2007, he received an honorary doctorate of humanities at Princeton University’s 260th graduation ceremony.
Ali lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his 4th wife, Yolanda ‘Lonnie’ Ali. They own a house in Berrien Springs, Michigan, which is for sale. On January 9, 2007, they purchased a house in eastern Jefferson County, Kentucky for $1,875,000.
In August 2008, Muhammad Ali attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
Ranking in heavyweight history
There is no consensus among boxing experts and historians as to who is the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. Ring Magazine, a prominent boxing magazine, named Muhammad Ali as number 1 in a 1998 ranking of greatest heavyweights from all eras. But in a 1971 article Nat Fleischer, the founder of the Ring who saw every heavyweight champion from Jim Jeffries to Joe Frazier, refused to include Ali in his all-time top ten, saying: “he does not qualify for rating with the greatest heavyweights of all time”. Fleischer was writing after Ali’s loss to Frazier, several years before his performance against Foreman and rematches with Frazier.
Recently Ali was named the second greatest fighter in boxing history by ESPN.com behind only welterweight and middleweight great Sugar Ray Robinson. In December 2007, ESPN listed its choice of the greatest heavyweights of all time. Ali was second on this list also behind Joe Louis, despite the fact that the earlier poll placed Ali ahead of Louis.
Muhammad Ali has been married four times and has seven daughters and two sons. Ali met his first wife, cocktail waitress Sonji Roi, approximately one month before they married on August 14, 1964. Roi’s objections to certain Muslim customs in regard to dress for women contributed to the breakup of their marriage. They divorced on January 10, 1966.
On August 17, 1967, Ali (aged 25) married 17-year old Belinda Boyd. After the wedding, she converted to Islam and changed her name to Khalilah Ali, though she was still called Belinda by old friends and family. They had four children: Maryum (b. 1968), Jamillah and Liban (b. 1970), and Muhammad Ali Jr. (b. 1972).
However, Ali began an affair with a young woman named Veronica Porsche in 1975. By the summer of 1977, Ali’s second marriage was over and he had married Veronica. At the time of their marriage, they had a baby girl, Hana, and Veronica was pregnant with their second child. Their second daughter, Laila, was born in December 1977. By 1986, Ali and Veronica were divorced.
On November 19, 1986, Ali married Yolanda Ali. They had been friends since 1964 in Louisville. Their mothers were close friends, although Lonnie has publicly denied the popular notion that Muhammad Ali was once her babysitter. They have one adopted son, Asaad.
Ali has two other daughters, Miya and Khaliah, from extramarital relationships.
Ali in the media and popular culture
As a world champion boxer and social activist, Ali has been the subject of numerous books, films and other creative works. He has appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine on 37 different occasions, second only to Michael Jordan. His autobiography The Greatest: My Own Story, written with Richard Durham, was published in 1975. When We Were Kings, a 1996 documentary about the Rumble in the Jungle, won an Academy Award, and the 2001 biopic Ali garnered an Oscar nomination for Will Smith’s portrayal of the lead role.
For contributions to the theater industry, Muhammad Ali was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Boulevard.