“He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
A fitting quote to describe the legendary career of the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in history and one of the most iconic American figures in history.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., better known as Muhammad Ali, was best known for being an inspiring and controversial figure both inside and outside of the boxing ring.
Born in the city of Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, Clay always knew he would become not only a living legend, but the greatest ever.
Clay lived in a humble home on Grand Avenue with other African-American families during a time of American apartheid under the Jim Crow laws. His childhood was marked by times where he witnessed his mother denied from a drink of water following a long day of working as a maid cleaning toilets and taking care of the young children of a white family. As for his father, Clay Sr., he was a painter and musician, but also a heavy drinker, which often led to legal struggles for assault, disorderly conduct, and reckless driving.
Clay first picked up boxing at the age of twelve following a theft of his $60 red Schwinn bicycle and learned from a local police officer named Joe Martin.
As an athlete, Clay had a long list of influences who helped shape his early life: Sugar Ray Robinson’s boxing style and professional wrestler “Gorgeous” George Raymond Wagner’s flamboyant self-promotion. However, no public figure influenced Clay more than a boy from Chicago named Emmett Till, who was murdered for reportedly flirting with a white woman. The fourteen-year-old Till, who was dared to call a white cashier “baby,” was kidnapped at the house he was staying at, beaten, and shot in the head by white men, who ended up throwing his corpse into the Tallahatchie River with a barbed wire wrapped around his neck and tied to a 74-pound cotton-gin fan. Upon seeing the images of of Till’s mutilated body featured in an issue of Life magazine, Cassius and a friend of his took out their frustration by vandalizing a local rail yard, causing a train to derail. The story also convinced him that as an African-American living in the South meant limited possibilities. For Cassius, this issue hit him personally.
As a high school student at Central High, Clay’s marks were very poor that he withdrew, came back and repeated the year. A career in professional sports, most notably basketball or football, seemed to require a collegiate career before the biggest stage. He knew that route wouldn’t happen. However, Clay believed boxing was the path to take. As a teenager who trained with Martin, he showed a legendary work ethic. Waking up at dawn and running through Chickasaw Park was just the beginning of his preternatural confidence. For six years, Martin taught him how to box and guided his career. Although Clay struggled in the classroom, finding it tough to read a book, he was rather very intelligent, absorbing knowledge like a sponge through other means. As a hopeful fighter on the rise, he made his amateur debut in 1954, capturing six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, and an Amateur Athletic Union national title. He finished his amateur record with 100 wins and 5 losses.
Shortly following his high school graduation, 18 year-old Cassius Clay began his journey towards greatness. The first stop was at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he captured the Light Heavyweight gold medal. For his first and longest bout in his career, it was against long-reigning champion Jim Crow and the racial segregation that denied an American hero, let alone a gold medalist, dignity at home.
After being denied service at a “whites only” restaurant, a frustrated Clay tossed the medal into the Ohio River. Unlike the athletes that preceded him, Clay used his brand and profile to magnify his political voice rather than chasing endorsement deals. Both inside and outside the ring, the long battle against Jim Crow, white supremacy and manifest destiny at home and abroad began for young Clay.
Between 1960 to 1980, Clay’s story became one that could become a film for Hollywood, one that no single movie could quite take in. From triumphs to calamity, endings to comebacks, Clay experienced it all. In October of 1960, Clay made his professional debut, winning his first bout in a six-round decision over Tunney Hunsaker. For three years, he amassed a record of 19-0 with 15 victories by knockout. Then came the upset victory in 1964 against Charles “Sonny” Liston to claim the heavyweight crown at the age of 22. With the world’s eyes on the young champ he shocked the world again two days later by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam. One month later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, which was the name given to him by his spiritual mentor Elijah Muhammad.
Over the next few years, Clay, now Ali, dominated the sport of boxing. However, as the 1960s became more and more clamorous, Ali served as the center of dissent in the United States. At the center of the Civil Rights Movement, he spoke about black pride and having resistance to white domination. Then in 1967, the draft for the Vietnam War came around. At the height of his boxing prime, Ali was among the selected numbers to be chosen. In April 1967, Ali refused to be drafted into the United States Army at the height of the war in Vietnam, as he famously quoted “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me a n****r.” Again, Ali dealt a direct jab to US establishment, refusing to jeopardize his life abroad while African-American men and women were being persecuted by the state, denied basic services in public areas, assaulted by policemen and dogs, rejected entry into colleges and murdered on the streets.
His courageousness, however, costed him not only millions of dollars, but also his title and three grand years of his prime. In June 1967, Ali was convicted of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing license by the state of New York and sentenced to five years in prison to go along with a $10,000 fine. Despite all that was taken from him, Ali never backed down from the fight and continued to serve as a symbol of refusal, and one of black pride.
During his 3 1/2 year layoff, Ali earned a living speaking at colleges and experienced the mood of the country changing. In August 1970, he was granted a license to box again by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission. Despite losing three years of his prime, Ali returned to the ring with hopes of reclaiming what was his: the heavyweight championship.
After cruising through the first two bouts in his return by way of two TKOs, Ali once again found himself in contention for the heavyweight championship against reigning champion Joe Frazier. Held at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971, the “Fight of the Century” as it became known as, drew tremendous excitement surrounding a bout featuring two undefeated fighters. It was such a big event that the ringside photographer for Life Magazine was Frank Sinatra. However, Ali’s comeback was temporarily derailed that night when he took his first career loss to Frazier via unanimous decision after 15 brilliant rounds. Months later, in June 1971, Ali won the biggest fights of his life as the Supreme Court finally reversed his conviction. The Greatest was now free of the specter of prison and was once again able to box anywhere in the world.
Over the next decade, Ali had some of the most memorable moments of his career: avenging his loss against Joe Frazier to set up “The Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974 against heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire. As one of the most anticipated championship fights ever, Foreman was the reigning world champ and a huge favorite, but Ali put his famous “Rope-A-Dope” tactic to win the bout in the 8th round. From that moment, Ali captured ten straight victories, including the third match with Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila” in 1975. In the bout, both men destroyed each other, not just in the ring with their punches, but with their words. Ali admitted that it was the “closest I’ve come to death.” Despite both of them fighting in a 15-round thriller, both had high praise for each other.
Following the bout in Manila, Ali finished his boxing career winning three of his final six bouts before retiring in 1981. Throughout his career, he provided not only boxing fans, but everyone with the greatest rivalry in boxing history with Joe Frazier while going up against the sport’s best with Sonny Liston, George Foreman, Ken Norton, and Larry Holmes.
Although most fighters have set better records than Ali, who finished with 56 wins (37 knockouts) and 5 losses, none have been able to match Ali’s reputation of giving memorable moments cemented in sports history. He revolutionized the sport of boxing, especially what it meant to fight as a heavyweight. It was not just about using brute strength to overcome your opponent, but a perfect balance of power with the style and flair of technique and skill. From the “rope-a-dope” to the anchor punch, Ali revolutionized the game and pumped so much love and passion for the sport that the sport itself loved him back.
Three years after his retirement, Ali publicly announced he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which resulted from head trauma suffered throughout his boxing career. Following his diagnosis, he established the Muhammad Ali Parkinson’s Center in Phoenix, Arizona, where he raised funds while remaining an active public figure, philanthropist, and fighter for human rights.
Parkinson’s slowly eroded Ali’s famed quick-witted mind and his ability to communicate effectively, but it couldn’t take the power that he had as a cultural icon. Despite his condition, Ali negotiated with Saddam Hussein to rescue 15 American hostages in 1991, lit the flame at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, served as the United Nations Messenger of Peace to Kabul in 2002, and founded the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky. By far his most famous recent public appearance came at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, where he served as the official Olympic Flag bearer while wearing an all-white suit with sunglasses.
Ali was never blind to the brutality of the sport and the game that had always been his life. He gained much of his fame in a sport where race was often intertwined within the culture and the history, a sport where one man tries to beat the other unconscious. Ali reaped the benefits of the sport, making millions of dollars to knock other people out. At times, history seemed ambivalent and the lurid spectacle of one man fighting out against another, particularly an African-American man fighting another for the enjoyment of white men and women:
“They stand around and say, ‘Good fight, boy: you’re a good boy; good goin’,” Ali stated in 1970. “They don’t look at fighters to have brains. They don’t look at fighters to be businessmen, or human, or intelligent. Fighters are just brutes that come to entertain the rich white people. Beat up on each other and break each other’s noses, and bleed, and show off like two little monkeys for the crowd, killing each other for the crowd. And half the crowd is white. We’re just like two slaves in that ring. The masters get two of us big old black slaves and let us fight it out while they bet: ‘My slave can whup your slave.’ That’s what I see when I see two black people fighting.”
With this quote in mind, think about the modern athletes that have been in the professional level: has any one of those athletes talked with as much political ambiguity, engagement, and complexity compared to Ali?
For Ali, being an African-American and practicing Islam during a time where both posed as great risks, he not only survived the times, but thrived while uplifting the heads of the African-American, Muslim, underdogs, and underrepresented communities of the world.
For so many people, he meant so much, throughout many generations. Ali was the Black Power movement before the Black Lives Matter movement even began, leading the revolution while providing a frame for today’s activism for racial justice. Ali offered a sense of religious pride for the Muslim community during a time of heightened fear against Islam, and especially for non-black Muslims, served as a perpetual reminder that religion cannot be harmoniously coexist with racism.
Ali served as one of the first athletes to ever speak publicly about racism and social injustice that have influenced athletes to use their brand to change society.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., who will always be known as Muhammad Ali, was always fearless in his stance on civil rights, fighting against the injustices worldwide, serving as the voice for those without one, a champion of the underdog. Through hundreds of risks, he took courage and redefined it and changed it not only with his red boxing gloves, but also his words.
Rumble, young man, rumble forever, in peace in heaven as you did on earth.
Spark Sports Editor
Follow Arthur Puu on Twitter @arthurpuu