Muhammad Ali: Boxing legend, activist and ‘The Greatest’ to a world of fans
His hands and his mouth were furiously fast. His skill as a boxer made him “The Greatest” in his mind and in the minds of many others.
He antagonized opponents with his taunts, amused reporters with his boasts and angered government officials with his anti-war speeches. At the same time, he goaded a stubborn, hard-nosed society with his stinging jabs against pervasive racism.
Since the mid-1960s, he was one of the most famous faces on Earth, and even though his appearances in recent years were few, the name Muhammad Ali still sparked smiles all around the globe.
His death Friday at age 74 came after a lengthy battle against Parkinson’s disease. Ali was diagnosed with the disease in 1984, three years after he retired from a boxing career that began when a skinny 12-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, amateur put on the gloves.
Fans on every continent adored him, and at one point he was the probably the most-recognizable man on the planet.
But he also was a controversial figure at home, announcing his conversion to Islam and name-change after an upset title win over Sonny Liston, then refusing to enter the draft for the Vietnam War and publicly speaking about racism in the United States.
In youth, told he’d better learn to box
Ali was born January 17, 1942, in Louisville as Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. His interest in boxing began at age 12, after he reported a stolen bike to a local police officer, Joe Martin, who was also a boxing trainer.
Martin told the young, infuriated Clay that if he wanted to pummel the person who stole his bike, he had better learn to box.
Just months after he turned 18, Clay won a gold medal as a light heavyweight at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, convincingly beating an experienced Polish fighter in the final.
The story goes that when he returned to a hometown parade, even with the medal around his neck, he was refused service in a segregated Louisville restaurant because of his race. According to several reports, he threw the medal into a river out of anger. The story is disputed by people who say Ali misplaced the medal.
Thirty-six years later, he was given a replacement medal and asked to light the cauldron at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, something he said was one of the greatest honors in his athletic career.
Clay turned professional after the 1960 Olympics and quickly won 19 straight fights. For many of them, Clay — then known as “The Louisville Lip” — would make a rhyme to predict in what round his opponent would fall.
The underdog stings like a bee
For his first heavyweight title fight, against the brutish Liston in 1964, he went a step further, renting a bus, and on the day he signed to fight the champ he went by Liston’s home.
On the side of the bus was painted: “World’s Most Colorful Fighter” and “Liston Will Go In Eight.” To make sure he was heard, Clay used a megaphone and shouted from an open window.
And in the lead-up to the fight, Clay, flanked by corner man Drew “Bundini” Brown, uttered the famous phrase that followed him forever, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” (Often missed is the subsequent line, “Rumble, young man, rumble.”)
In stark contrast to Clay’s pretty-boy image, Liston — a formidable and domineering fighter — had an extensive criminal past. He learned to box in prison. But the young, brash Clay appeared supremely confident, and his mocking of Liston was relentless.
Post-Liston: From Cassius X to Muhammad Ali
The day after the Liston fight, Clay announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam and was changing his name to Cassius X, the letter symbolizing the unknown name taken away from his family by slave owners hundreds of years before.
A year later, he was anointed Muhammad Ali by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. Most sportscasters initially refused to call him by his new name. But Howard Cosell did, becoming a supporter and friend to the champ as they verbally sparred for the rest of Cosell’s life.
Once Cosell said Ali was being truculent. Ali snapped back, “Whatever truculent mean, if that’s good, I’m that.”
Many in the United States scorned Ali’s name change and his alignment with the Nation of Islam, and a furor erupted after he refused, because of his religious beliefs, to serve in the military during the Vietnam War when he was called up in 1966.