Muhammad Ali, who was called “arguably the greatest fighter of all time” by Thomas Hauser, was bom in Louisville, Kentucky, where he took up boxing at age 12. His bicycle had been stolen, and Ali, named Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. at birth, was learning to fight in order to beat up the kid who stole it.
As Columbus Salley wrote, “By the time he finished high school, Ali had fought 108 times as an amateur boxer, won six Kentucky Golden Gloves champi¬ onships, two National Golden Glove tourna¬ ments, and two national Amateur Athletic Union titles.” Already considered the best in the world, Ali made it official in 1960, the year he took the Gold Medal at the Olympic Games in Rome, Italy.
Returning to the US to turn professional, Ali stole some of Gorgeous George’s rhetoric, and picked up the talk that made him famous. Constantly proclaiming “I’m pretty, I’m the best….Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee….”
Ali gained national popularity, and an international reputation in 1964, when he beat the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, becoming the new champion of the world. The day after he won the title, Ali publicly announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam (see no. 87), and accepted the new name bestowed on him by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad.
From then on, he was Muhammad Ali, and no one ever forgot it.Taking a firm stand in his open accep¬ tance of the Black Muslim faith, Ali was prepared for the resistance that might come from his fans, but it was difficult to accept the US Army’s response. Drafted in 1967, Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam War because of his religion.
Not only was his refusal made public, but so was his bold argument against the war: “My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese. You’re my foes when I want free¬dom. You’re my foes when I want justice….” Convicted of draft evasion, Ali was stripped of his title and his boxing license was revoked. In 1971, the US Supreme Court reversed the decision, granting him consci¬ entious objector status.
His vindication added a new fire to his quest to regain his title. Fighting and beating George Foreman in 1984, Ali remained a nationally beloved champion until Leon Spinks took the title in February of 1978. In September of the same year, Ali fought Spinks again, won the title back and remained undefeated until his retirement in 1981.
When he left the world of boxing, he said, “Now my life is really starting. Fighting injustice, fighting racism, fighting crime, fighting illiteracy, fighting poverty, using this face the world knows so well, and going out and fighting for truth and differ¬ ent causes.”