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Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. Young Clay found boxing in 1954 after his bike was stolen at the Louisville Home Show. He reported the theft to local police officer, Joe Martin, and told him he would beat up whoever stole the bike. Martin laughed at the idea of such a small boy beating someone up, so he decided to train Clay. Martin, who also taught boxing to local youth at the Columbia Gym, taught the 89-pound Clay how to box during his teenage years. From that day on, Clay would show up every day at the gym like clockwork working on his skills.
By 1958, Clay had dropped out of high school with several amateur boxing titles, and by 1960, he was preparing to compete in the Olympics. In the gold-medal match for the light-heavyweight division, Clay faced Polish southpaw Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, and won the gold in three rounds. After the Olympics, Clay received a contract from the Louisville Sponsoring Group for $333 a month, plus a $10,000 signing bonus.
With no more money problems to worry about, Clay had more time to consider what was going on in the world around him. He paid heavy attention to the Civil Rights Movement and he wanted to be part of it. But it was very difficult for a young black man to be heard in the early 1960’s. The only group giving a voice to the “common man” was the Nation of Islam. In 1962, Clay drove to Detroit to hear the Nation of Islam’s leader, the honorable Elijah Muhammad, speak. He also met someone who would greatly influence his life, a man named Malcolm X.
Clay studied X’s teachings of Islam, but more so, Clay agreed with X’s view on how blacks were treated in the United States. Both Clay and X believed in complete in total segregation between blacks and whites living in America. “I’m no troublemaker. I don’t believe in forced integration. I know where I belong. I’m not going to force myself into anybody’s house.” Clay also advocated X’s criticism on the non-violent movement in the southern states.
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On February 25, 1964, in Miami, Clay got his first World Heavyweight Championship match against Sonny Liston, who Ali called a “big ugly bear.” Clay won the bout in seven rounds and became the World Heavyweight Champion. After the fight he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali.
But by 1964, the Nation of Islam was in turmoil. Malcolm X had broken ties with the Nation after feuding with their leader, Elijah Muhammad. And on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated by three members of the Nation of Islam while speaking at a mosque in Harlem.
Along with the Civil Rights Movement, the other pivotal event that occurred in the 1960’s was the Vietnam War. Many young Americans did not understand why so many troops were dying and Ali was no exception. “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong…no Vietcong ever called me a nigger.” In February of 1966, Ali was drafted by the United States military to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali appealed his selection and also asked for conscientious objector or “CO” status. His request was denied and Ali asked for a hearing, which was held on August 23, 1966. Ali’s appeal was rejected by the draft board, which feared that if Ali received CO status, then every member of the Nation of Islam would receive such a status. Ali induction date was scheduled for April 28, 1967. But, when the draft board called the name Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali did not step forward and was charged with a federal crime. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten-thousand miles from home and drop bombs and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam, while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”
His trial was set for June 19, 1967, and on June 20, he was found guilty of refusing induction and was given the maximum sentence of 5 years in prison, and a $10,000 fine. Ali was released pending an appeal of the case, and his passport was taken away. His World Heavyweight Title was stripped by the World Boxing Association. The undefeated Muhammad Ali had finally fallen.
It seems strange that Ali’s character was considered unfit for professional boxing because he refused to kill. But many boxers who were convicted of murder had character’s that were just fine for boxing.