He began boxing at age 12, initially tutored by policeman Joe Martin. After a glittering amateur career including six Kentucky State Golden Gloves titles, two National Golden Gloves titles, and two National Amateur Athletic Union titles, he won the gold medal in boxing's light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome on September 5.
He turned professional under the tutelage of boxing legend Angelo Dundee, and quickly became famous for his unorthodox style, his spectacular results, and his tireless self-promotion. He made a name for himself as the "Louisville Lip" by composing poems predicting in which round he would knock his opponent out. He boisterously sang his own praises, with sayings like "I am the greatest" and "I'm young, I'm pretty, and I can't possibly be beat."
In 1964, Clay managed to get himself an opportunity to fight heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. He stunned the world by upsetting the heavy favorite Liston, who refused to leave his corner for the eighth round, claiming he had injured his shoulder. Clay was duly crowned the heavyweight champion of the world. He would confirm his abilities in 1965, when he knocked Liston out in the first round of their rematch, albeit controversially as few observers saw the "phantom punch" that floored Liston.
In between the two matches, he also became famous for other reasons: he joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. In 1966, he refused to serve in the American army in the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector, famously saying that he "got nothing against no Viet Cong. No Vietnamese ever called me a nigger." He was stripped of his championship belt and his license to box, and sentenced to five years in prison (this was overturned on appeal three years later).
In 1970, granted a license to box once more, he began a comeback, but suffered a setback when he lost his 1971 title fight, a bruising 15 round encounter with Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden. He split two bouts with Ken Norton before beating Frazier on points in 1974 to earn another title shot.
The incumbent, George Foreman, was a large, hard-hitting, undefeated young fighter who had previously demolished Frazier, KO'ing him in the second round of their championship fight, and was the heavy favorite. The fight was held in Zaire and promoted by Don King as "The Rumble in The Jungle." In the bout that would cement his reputation as "The Greatest", Ali boxed his best tactical fight. Leading with his "wrong" hand and playing "rope-a-dope" by leaning far back on the ropes (that had supposedly been loosened by Dundee), Ali absorbed everything Foreman could throw at him, whilst only occasionally throwing counter punches. By the end of the sixth round, Foreman had punched himself out and Ali was able to attack a little more. Foreman kept advancing, but his blows were much less effective and near the end of the eighth, Ali's right hand finally sent the exhausted Foreman to the floor.
He would retain his title until a 1978 loss to Leon Spinks. He defeated Spinks in a rematch, becoming the heavyweight champion for the record third time. He vacated the title and retired.
That retirement was short-lived, however, and on October 2, 1980, he challenged Larry Holmes for the WBC's version of the world Heavyweight title. Looking to set another record, as the first boxer to win the Heavyweight title four times, he lost by technical knockout in round eleven, when Dundee would not let him come out for the round. The Holmes fight, promoted as The Last Hurrah, was a fight many fans and experts view with disdain, because of what many viewed as a deteriorated version of Ali. Holmes was Ali's sparring partner when Holmes was a budding fighter and because of that, some viewed the result of the fight as a symbolic passing of the torch.
Ali retired permanently in 1981 with a career record of 56 wins, 37 by knockout, against 5 losses.
Ali had a highly unorthodox style for a heavyweight boxer. He carried his hands at his sides rather than the orthodox boxing style of carrying the hands high to defend the face. Instead, he relied on his extraordinary reflexes and reach to keep him away from his opponents' blows. Ali punched to the head much more than most boxers -- a high-risk strategy since over the duration of a long fight punches to the body can be much more effective in tiring an opponent out.
A friend of Malcolm X's, Clay converted to Islam, joining the Nation of Islam. Though both he and Malcolm eventually parted ways with the Nation of Islam, he remained a vocal and eloquent advocate on black civil rights issues. The English journalist Tony Parsons described him as a hero because "no white man could look at him or listen to him and feel superior".
He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1982, following which his motor functions began a slow decline. Despite this, he remains a hero to millions around the world. In 1985, he was called on to negotiate for the release of kidnapped Americans in Lebanon; in 1996, to light the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Georgia. At the same Olympics, Ali was also presented with a replacement gold medal. He had thrown the previous one, won in 1960, in the Ohio River after he had been refused service in a restaurant because of his race.
See also: Ramadan Ali.
|Table of contents|