This is the legend of Muhammad Ali,
The greatest fighter that ever will be.
He talks a great deal and brags, indeed,
Of a powerful punch and blinding speed.
Ali fights great, he’s got speed and endurance;
If you sign to fight him, increase your insurance.
Ali’s got a left, Ali’s got a right;
If he hits you once, you’re asleep for the night.
Muhammad Ali, boxer, wordsmith, and humanitarian, was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1942 in Louisville Kentucky to a middle-class family. His father, Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr or "Cash", owned a shop that painted signs; as his son would be in turn, Cash was a sharp dresser, a smooth talker, and a know-it-all. His mother, Odessa Grandy Clay or "Bird", was 17 when she married the 28-year-old Cash. Bird worked as a cleaning woman and cook for white families to help support Cassius and his younger brother Rudolph.
When young Cassius was 12 someone stole his new bike; furious, the boy told police officer Joe Martin that he would whip the thief if he found him, at which Martin, who had a gym, told him he would teach him how to box so he could whip him properly. So Cassius started going to the gym regularly, working with trainer Fred Stoner. In his high school days, and using Stoner's gloves, Cassius become a star boxer, winning six Kentucky championships, two national Golden Glove championships, and two Amateur Athletic Union Championships. Ali had an unusual boxing style; he was faster than his opponents, so didn't use his hands as guard, instead holding them at his waist and avoiding his opponent's punches with just reflexes and footwork. Even at this early age he engaged in his trademark bragging ("I am the greatest!"), talking constantly about how strong and pretty he was and how no one could beat him. This did not always please local audiences who watched him live or via TV on Tomorrow's Champions, a show produced by Martin and broadcast in the area.
In 1960 the 18-year-old Cassius Clay went to the Olympics in Rome, though he first had to overcome his fear of flying and apparently boarded the plane wearing a parachute he had bought himself and refused to take off. In the Olympic village his boastful and boisterous behaviour earned him the title "Mayor", though his hogging of the limelight did not endear him to all his fellow athletes. Cassius' poem relates how he fared at the Olympics:
To make America the greatest is my goal
So I beat the Russian, and I beat the Pole
And for the USA won the Medal of Gold
Italians said "You're greater than Cassius of Old
We like your name, we like your game
So make Rome your home if you will"
I said I appreciate your kind hospitality
But the USA is my country still
Cause they waiting to welcome me in Louisville.
With the light heavyweight gold medal around his neck, Cassius was ready to turn pro. Before looking for a coach, he signed a contract with eleven millionaires, the Louisville Sponsoring Group, which netted him an instant $10,000 and 50% of his future ring income. His first win was against part-time fighter Tunney Hunsaker. Then Cassius began to train with Angelo Dundee, with whom he would stay for most of his fighting life. Eight days after the two began training with each other, Cassius knocked out Herb Siler in the fourth round. Cassius stepped up his verbal mouthing, beginning to predict, often correctly, in what round he would win; he composed humourous poems about his opponents which he would yell out to anyone who would listen. In 1963 Cassius employed Drew "Bundini" Brown as motivator and jester, and together they bolstered Cassius' reputation as the "Louisville Lip", coming up with slogans like "Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee!" By the end of that year Cassius had won all of his 19 professional bouts, 16 by knockout. In 1964 Cassius finally got the chance he had been waiting for, to fight the heavyweight champion Sonny Liston; Cassius characteristically taunted Liston before the fight and predicted that he would win in eight rounds.
Clay comes out to meet Liston
And Liston starts to retreat
If Liston goes back any further
He'll end up in a ringside seat.
Clay swings with a left,
Clay swings with a right,
Look at young Cassius
Carry the fight.
Liston keeps backing
But there's not enough room
It's a matter of time.
There, Clay lowers the boom.
Now Clay swings with a right,
What a beautiful swing,
And the punch raises the bear,
Clear out of the ring.
Liston is still rising
And the ref wears a frown,
For he can't start counting,
Till Sonny comes down.
Now Liston disappears from view.
The crowd is getting frantic,
But our radar stations have picked him up.
He's somewhere over the Atlantic.
Who would have thought
When they came to the fight
That they'd witness the launching
Of a human satellite?
Yes, the crowd did not dream
When they laid down their money
That they would see
A total eclipse of the Sonny!
I am the greatest!
Nobody took Cassius seriously, least of all Liston, who apparently trained for a quick two-round fight. Entering the ring a seven-to-one favourite, Liston found no opportunity to land one of his feared blows; instead Cassius danced around him constantly and landed a hail of jabs and combinations. At the beginning of the seventh round, Liston refused to resume the fight, and Cassius, elated, ran around the ring yelling at the journalists who had doubted him: "Who is the greatest? Eat your words! I shook up the world!"
Cassius had already been seen in public with Nation of Islam leaders Malcom X and Elija Muhammad, and two days after the fight he announced that he had joined the radical black Muslim group and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. "I don't have to be what you want me to be; I'm free to be what I want", said Ali defiantly. Ali's brother had joined the Nation earlier, taking the name Rahaman. White Americans were afraid of the militant sect, and Ali's public proclamation that he was a member alienated him from the white press, who persisted in calling him by the name given to his slave ancestors, Clay. That same year, 1964, Ali married cocktail waitress and model Sonji Roy, whom he had known for a month. In 1965 Ali and Liston had a rematch, which Ali won with the infamous phantom punch that made many think the match was fixed. (Ali claimed he moved so fast you couldn't see it. "I was so fast that I could get up, cross the room, turn off the light, and get back in bed before the light went off," he says now.) 29 days later, and less than a year after he married, Ali filed for divorce, claiming Sonji didn't behave as a good Muslim woman should: she wouldn't wear long skirts or eschew make-up. He then decisively beat Floyd Patterson, who disliked the Black Muslims, and went on to beat George Chuvalo in Canada, Henry Cooper and Brian London in England, Germany’s champion Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt and Cleveland Williams in Houston.
In 1964 Ali had failed the aptitude test at a military induction centre and had been classified as unqualified for the army; he may have been dyslexic and later said he could never read or write very well. In 1966, however, the military needed more soldiers for the Vietnam War and lowered their standards; suddenly Ali was qualified. He refused to enlist, famously saying, "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong." Ali insisted that he was eligible for conscientous objector status on the grounds that his religion didn't allow him to fight, but mainstream America had no patience for those they saw as draft dodgers.
In another move that upset whites, when Ali's contract with the Louisville Sponsoring Group expired, he hired Herbert Muhammad, Elijah Muhammad's son, as his new manager. In 1967 Ali fought Ernie "The Octopus" Terrell, undefeated for five years; Terrell refused to call Ali by his Muslim name and Ali brutally beat his opponent, yelling "What's my name, Uncle Tom?" during the fight. Later he defeated Zora Folley, after which Ali formally refused the draft; he was sentenced to five years in prison, given a $10,000 fine (both later overturned), and stripped of his title, his boxing license, and his passport. He was denied the right to fight at the prime of his career.
Clean out my cell
And take my tail to jail
'Cause better to be in jail fed
Than to be in Vietnam, dead.
In 1967, Ali married 17-year-old Muslim Belinda Boyd, or Khaliah; the two would have four children. Ali began public speaking at universities and colleges to earn a living, giving political speeches about his views on religion, war, and the segregation of blacks to students, who were impressed with his charm and charisma and swayed by his message of justice and peace. He starred in a documentary A.K.A. Cassius Clay and on Broadway in Buck White. In time public opinion began to turn against the Vietnam war, and Ali's steadfast moral stand began to win him admirers. In 1970 Ali won back his boxing license, though the Supreme Court had not yet pronounced Ali guilty or innocent for his refusal of the draft. His first fight - and victory - was against Jerry Quarry, then Oscar Bonavena; finally Ali took on "Smokin'" Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion during Ali's exile.
Joe's gonna come out smokin'
But I ain't gonna be jokin'
I'll be pickin and pokin'
Pouring water on his smokin'
This might shock and amaze ya
But I'm gonna destroy Joe Frazier.
It was not to be. Ali lost a fifteen round battle on points and was defeated for the first time since he had become professional. Still, in 1971 his conviction of refusing to be inducted into the army was reversed and he got his passport and license back; only the championship belt he had been stripped of could not be returned, and he would have to win it back on his own.
This is what Ali set out to do. In the next 18 months, Ali won ten fights in against Jimmy Ellis, Buster Mathis, and Jurgen Blin in 1971, Mac Foster, George Chuvalo, Jerry Quarry, Al Lewis, Floyd Patterson, and Bob Foster in 1972, and Joe Bugner in 1973. Then he fought Ken Norton, who Ali didn't take seriously, but who broke Ali's jaw in the second round. The fight stretched out for twelve rounds - Ali fighting with his broken jaw for ten - but Norton won on points. After Ali healed, the two fighters had a rematch, and though it was close, Ali won. He then fought Rudi Lubbers in Jakarta, after which Ali fought Joe Frazier again. Frazier had been dethroned in Jamaica in 1973 by a young, unknown fighter named George Foreman who had knocked the champ down six times in two rounds before the referee stopped the bout; a year later Foreman would knock out Ken Norton in two. But Ali was facing Frazier now, and Ali won decisively.
Frazier defeated, a fight with Foreman was unavoidable.
You think the world was shocked when Nixon resigned?
Wait till I whup George Foreman's behind.
Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee
His hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see
Now you see me, now you don't
George thinks he will, but I know he won't.
I done wrassled with an alligator
I done tussled with a whale
Only last week I murdered a rock
Injured a stone, hospitalized a brick
I'm so mean I make medicine sick
The fight, dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle, was chronicled in the Oscar award-winning documentary When We Were Kings, and it was this documentary that got me interested in Ali. The fight took place in Zaire, as president Mobuto Sese Seto wanted to put his country on the map and offered $5 million for each fighter. B.B. King, James Brown, The Spinners, and The Crusaders performed. Ali charmed the Africans, while Foreman alienated them, surrounding himself with German Shepherds to keep strangers away. But Ali's handlers weren't sure he could beat the huge fighter and were unconvinced when Ali told them that he would dance around Foreman. When Ali entered the ring, however, he used a very different strategy - the rope-a-dope - absorbing all the blows Foreman could hand out and waiting for his chance. Years later, I saw Foreman discuss the fight in an interview; he related how Ali taunted, "Is that all you got George?" to which the huge man now admitted with a rueful laugh, "Yup, that was pretty much it." Foreman was exhausted, and Ali knocked him out. He was once again the heavyweight champion of the world.
Ali's next match was with Chuck Wepner; the fight had guest commentary provided by Redd Foxx and James Brown. Though Wepner was expected to lose, the tough fighter took Ali to the fifteenth round, even knocking the champ down in round nine (which Ali claimed was caused by Wepner stepping on his foot). Wepner was the inspiration for Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. Ali went on to defeat Ron Lyle and Joe Bugner, then fought Joe Frazier again at the Thrilla in Manila. This was, in my opinion, a low point for Ali; he tossed racist taunts at Frazier, calling him a gorilla and imitating him mockingly. His gibes had a cruel edge, and the fight was brutal, with both men staggering and damaged by the end; Ali, who won, fainted in his corner after the fight, and would later say it was the closest he came to dying. Some people feel that Ali's Parkinson's disease stems from the beating he took during this fight.
Though his handlers wanted him to quit fighting, Ali wouldn't, going on to knock out Jean-Pierre Coopman and Richard Dunn and defeat Jimmy Young in 1976. The same year he fought the Japanese wrestler Antonio Inoki in Tokyo for $2 million, and Ken Norton for the third time, though he only won this fight because Norton got bad advice from his coaches. Ali later admitted that he felt he had lost. In 1977 Ali defeated Alfredo Evangelista. Meanwhile, his second marriage came to an end after his wife got fed up with his long-standing relationship with Veronica Porche, one of the poster girls who had promoted the fight with Foreman; in 1977 Ali married Veronica, and the couple had two daughters. The same year Ali beat Earnie Shavers in Madison Square Garden, but it was obvious that Ali's health was failing, and his longtime doctor left the entourage in protest against Ali's decision to continue fighting.
Ali then lost to Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks, a defeat which he later said embarrassed him because Spinks was so unskilled. Ali won a rematch, saving his pride, and then retired from boxing, after which he began to pursue diplomatic negotiations. He was entrusted by president Jimmy Carter with promoting a boycott of the Moscow Olympics, a mission at which he failed. Discouraged, and twenty years after his first fight against Tunney Hunsaker, Ali stepped into the ring once again, this time with Larry Holmes. Sylvester Stallone called the fight "an autopsy on a man who's still alive". Ali lost, but he wouldn't give up, and was determined to retire a winner. In 1981 he fought Trevor Berbick, and lost. It was obvious even to Ali that his career as a boxer was over. He was talking slowly and quietly and having trouble with motor control. He was finally diagnosed with Parkinson's.
Ali divorced his third wife in 1986 and married his current spouse, Lonnie Williams. He has eight biological children and one adopted son.
In spite of his decreasing physical mobility, Ali has been very active since his retirement from boxing. Although he left the Nation of Islam in 1975, he has remained a Muslim, and his religion has helped him forge diplomatic ties with other Muslim leaders. He travelled to Iraq in 1990 to negotiate personally with Saddam Hussein for the release of 15 hostages, and continues to travel around the world on humanitarian missions. He is tremendously popular throughout the developing world, especially those with Muslim populations.
I well remember Ali lighting the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996; at the last minute the spotlight shone on him and the crowd gasped, for his identity had been kept a secret; we all watched in silence as he raised a shaky hand to light the flame. At these games Ali was given a gold medal to replace the one he had earned in 1960 but subsequently lost - though one story is that he threw it away in disgust at the condemnation he had faced over his refusal to fight in Vietnam. Ali's earlier radical stances which once caused him to be vilified have now made him a heroic figure. Today Ali is more popular than ever and still loves his fans; he will sign autographs and pose for pictures until he is exhausted. He once said, "I wish people would love everybody else the way they love me. It would be a better world." Would that it were so.
I did a lot of research at many websites for this node; if you're interested in Ali, good place to start is the extensive site at
All the poetry I've used here is, of course, Ali's, most of which I got from
I also highly recommend When We Were Kings, a documentary so powerful it can interest a pacifist like me enough to watch this violent sport - though only when Ali was fighting.
Editors Note: Muhammad Ali died on June 3, 2016 from septic shock. He was 74 years old.