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Muhammad Ali, whose birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay, was born in Louisville, Kentucky January 17, 1942. He was named for a white, Kentucky abolitionist, Cassius M. Clay, and received the name Marcellus from his father’s name. Ali’s father, Marcellus Clay was a mural painter who did a lot of work for many churches in the community and his mother Odessa (Grady) Clay was a domestic worker. As a young boy, Cassius Clay was full of energy and carried a loud mouth wherever he went. One day when Ali discovered that someone stole his bicycle, he became enraged and made loud threatening comments by exclaiming that he would “whup whoever stole it.” Upon hearing these threats, Louisville police officer Joe Martin persuaded Ali to take out his frustration in the boxing ring rather than on the dangerous streets of Louisville. At age 12, Ali’s boxing career had officially begun.
Martin started Ali working out in Louisville’s Columbia Gym, and Ali became passionately devoted to the sport. With the help of a black trainer named Fred Stoner, who taught Ali the techniques of boxing and to move with the grace of a dancer, Ali became a very skilled and deadly competitor. Between 1955 and 1960, Ali had participated in 108 bouts, in which he won six Kentucky Golden Glove titles, two National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, two National Golden Glove crowns, and received the Gold Medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympics held in Rome, Italy. Ali was only 18 years old when he won the Olympic Gold Medal by defeating Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, a tough fighter from Poland.
Shortly after winning the Gold Medal, Ali started looking for better opportunities by saying, “that was my last amateur fight, I’m turning pro, but I don’t know exactly how. I want a good contract with a good manager.” Ali felt that he was on top of the world after winning in the Olympics and felt confident that people of the U.S. would be proud of his accomplishment as he brought home the “Gold”. What Ali would return to find wasn’t anything like he had expected.
Once returning to his segregated hometown in Louisville, Ali showed off his Gold Medal to everyone whether they wanted to see it or not. Ali then decided to wear his Medal to downtown Louisville looking for respect and praise as a U.
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Ali had already gained some fame when he won the Gold Medal in the Olympic Games under the name Cassius Clay, but his fame really took off once he entered professional boxing. By signing a very profitable contract, a 50-50 split with a twelve member group of millionaires called the Louisville Sponsoring Group, Ali had entered the spectrum where his name would never be forgotten. After two years of fighting in professional boxing, Ali figured he would be ready to challenge the champion for the World Heavyweight Title Belt. Ali realized that during this time he would have to work hard in the ring and more importantly outside the ring to reach this goal. During a time period when boxing was becoming less popular and television stopped airing fight cards, it was hard for a fighter to get his shot at the title. Gaining a title shot mostly depended on who the fans wanted to see in the match, for they were the ones who paid the cash to keep boxing in existence.
Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), as he was known at the time, began to use his loud mouth to humor the fans and intimidate other fighters, and was able to bring excitement back to the boxing sport. Clay made a name for himself and the fans loved him. Although it took longer than he expected, after a 19-0 win-loss record with 15 knockouts, Cassius Clay finally got his shot at the man who held the World Title Belt, Sonny Liston. Liston was a pure boxer, rated to be the hardest puncher in the heavyweight division, and was thought by many to be invincible. Ali didn’t let this bother him as he entertained reporters and made the prediction to win in eight rounds. He chanted for weeks his war cry “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” which has become recognizable by all of Ali’s fans. As the date set for the fight neared, February 25, 1964, fans anxiously awaited and boxing was born again. Ali was dominate throughout the fight and won in the seventh round, one round better than the eighth round he predicted. Ali had accomplished two goals, he was the heavyweight champion of the world and had gained the fame he was looking for as almost everyone knew him.
What happened next would startle the sports world as formerly known Cassius Clay announced that he had become a member of the Muslim faith and was changing his name to Muhammad Ali. This was the name given to him by Muslim patriarch Elijah Muhammad meaning “beloved of Allah”. Ali had been influenced and introduced to this religion for several years by human rights activist Malcolm X. Over the next two years, Ali defended his title nine times against such names as Sonny Liston, Floyd Patterson, and Ernie Terrell. He was unbeatable as he destroyed every opponent he faced, and his famous slogan, “I am the greatest,” depicts the cocky and confident attitude that he carried to the ring.
Ali was the greatest to everyone until May of 1967 when he refused to induct himself into the United States military due to his religious beliefs during the peak of the Vietnam War. Ali told a Sports Illustrated reporter, “I’m giving up my title, my wealth, maybe my future. Many great men have been tested for their religious beliefs. If I pass this test, I’ll come out stronger than ever.” The undefeated (29-0) boxing champ was stripped of his heavyweight title and sentenced to a five year prison term, which was appealed and later overturned three years later. Nevertheless, Ali was now considered by many of his former supporters to be an unpatriotic coward and a disgrace to the U.S.
In 1970, Ali began fighting once again and knocked out Jerry Quarry in the third round. Ali’s victory was a symbol of release and freedom, and with this win, he regained the respect of those who had once turned against him. After an astounding 31-0 record Ali had a chance to attain the title that had been stripped of him almost four years ago, but lost his first professional career fight to Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971. Ali regained the title three years later with a knockout of George Foreman in the eighth round of a stellar performance in Zaire. Late in his career, Ali would once again cough up the title in a punishing loss to Leon Spinks. Exactly seven months later on September 15, 1978, Ali would prevail over Spinks to become the only fighter to ever win the heavyweight crown three separate times. In 1979, Ali retired with a 56-3 record, only to return to boxing in 1980-1981 to lose his final two matches. Ali officially retired in December of 1981.
Muhammad Ali also faced another test late in his boxing career that will affect him for the rest of his life. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed as suffering from a series of symptoms known as “punch drunk” syndrome which is characterized by parkinsonian symptoms. Taking so many vicious blows to the head has caused shakiness, slurred speech, memory loss, and difficulty in walking for the champ. This has not slowed down the man who refuses to be defeated as he continues to travel 275 days out of the year doing missionary work to help kids and lower class citizens and making public appearances to raise money for the Muhammad Ali Foundation. Ali has also been honored for creating the Muhammad Ali Community and Economic Development Corporation, which teaches job skills to low-income public housing residents in Chicago. In 1996, Ali was asked to carry the torch up the flight of steps and light the Olympic Flame at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Ali was successful in doing so despite his impairment and received a standing ovation from the spectators. Today, Muhammad Ali enjoys spending time with his wife Yolanda and their adopted son Asaad Amin at their home in Berrien Springs, Michigan.