The life and times of Muhammad Ali

A world champion fighter, a political firebrand, a peerless entertainer and a poet – we examine the incredible life of Muhammad Ali.

Named ‘Sportsman of the Century’ by Sports Illustrated, Ali is recognised as being not just a champion boxer, but a man who managed to transcend his impressive exploits in the ring and become something greater.

His outspoken behaviour, whether during pre- or post-fights or as a fearless civil rights campaigner, transformed him into a pop cultural icon and one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.

Ali had an incredible gift for the gab, and his interviews with reporters were frequently as entertaining as his fights, as he goaded his opponents with ingenious rhyming putdowns.

His ability to talk circles around his rivals outside the ring seemed to mirror his incredible unorthodox and elusive fighting style inside it.

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“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see,” Ali famously said.

But he also used his voice to stand up for the oppressed and fight for civil rights and justice, while becoming an important figure in the anti-war movement during the time of the Vietnam conflict.

Born Cassius Marcellus Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942, Ali first rose to fame by winning light-heavyweight gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics as an 18-year-old, six years after first taking up the sport of boxing.

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In 1964, he defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight title, then told the world he had become a member of the Nation of Islam, and was changing his name to Muhammad Ali.

While many were slow to adopt the new moniker, Ali stuck to his guns and the rest of the world eventually followed suit.

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The 1960s were a period of great social upheaval in the United States, with the civil rights movement gaining momentum and a war in Vietnam sharply dividing the country and leading to mass protests and disruption.

Far from shying away from those troubled times, Ali become a passionate and vocal civil rights campaigner, as well as a conscientious objector to the war.

In 1967, having successfully defended his world title nine times, he refused induction into the U.S. Army on religious grounds, and was arrested and charged with draft evasion.

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Asked why he wouldn’t go to war in Vietnam, Ali said: “I am not going 10,000 miles to help murder, kill, and burn other people to simply help continue the domination of white slave-masters over dark people the world over.”

As a result of his strong convictions and beliefs, Ali was stripped of his title, though he at least remained free of prison on appeal.

In 1971, his conviction was unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court, and he was able to return to boxing.

Some of his most memorable fights would follow, including his epic encounters with Joe Frazier and George Foreman.

Frazier handed Ali his first professional defeat in the so-called “Fight of the Century” in New York on March 8, 1971, but he would regain his belt with an eighth-round knockout of George Foreman in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) on 30 October 1974.

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Ali fought Frazier for a third and final time in the Philippines on October 1 1975, winning the “Thrilla in Manila” when Frazier failed to come out for the 15th and final round.

He would make six more successful defences of his title before losing to Leon Spinks in February 1978, but he kept fighting and regained the world title again by the end of the year.

His career finally ended with one-sided defeats by Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981, long after many felt he should have retired.

While the fights towards the end of his career are some of the most memorable, they were also some of the most punishing, and the many blows Ali received would take their toll.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, but would live on for 32 more years, bravely battling his affliction.

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In 1996, he lit the torch to begin the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and in 2005 he was presented with the medal of freedom by President George W. Bush.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Ali said: “As a man who never sold out his people. But if that’s too much, then just a good boxer.

“I won’t even mind if you don’t mention how pretty I was.”

Memorable Muhammad Ali quotes

After winning Olympic gold: “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. The Greeks said you’re better than the Cassius of old.”

Before fighting Archie Moore: “Archie’s been living off the fat of the land; I’m here to give him his pension plan.”

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Before fighting Sonny Liston: “Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”

“I’ll hit Liston with so many punches from so many angles he’ll think he’s surrounded.”

“Why, Chump, I bet you scare yourself to death just starin’ in the mirror. You ugly bear! You ain’t never fought nobody but tramps and has-beens. You call yourself a world champion? You’re too old and slow to be champion!”

After beating Liston: “I shook up the world! I shook up the world!”

Before the Rumble in the Jungle: “I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

Michael Schmitt

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