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Muhammad Ali Biography

Posted On December 8th, 2018 By Celebrity Biographies

Muhammad Ali Biography
Muhammad Ali Biography

Muhammad Ali was an American boxing legend, a social activist and a philanthropist. He is considered the most notable and celebrated sports athlete of the 20th century. Arguably, he is also the greatest known boxing heavyweight champion of all time and was nicknamed “The Greatest”.

Early Life & Amateur Career

Muhammad Ali’s birth name was Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. and was born on 17 January 1942 to parents Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr. (1912-1990) and Odessa O’Grady Clay (1917-1994). His father was a billboard and sign painter while his mother worked as a domestic helper. He also had a sister and four brothers.

Ali attended Central High School in Louisville. He suffered from dyslexia which troubled him a lot with reading and writing in the school and even later in his life. Moreover, he grew amid racial discrimination. His mother recollected one such an incident when he was not allowed to have a glass of water at a store. She said “They wouldn’t give him one because of his color. That really affected him.”

Ali was 12 years old when he met Joe E. Martin, who was a policeman and a boxing coach. It was fate that brought them together. Ali’s bike got stolen and when he met the police officer, he told him that he wanted to beat up the thief. “I want to whup the thief”, he said. Martin replied, “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people.” Ali didn’t take boxing seriously at this time, so he rejected Martin’s offer. But after a few days, he watched amateur boxing on television. He really got interested in boxing since that. So he started training with Fred Stoner at a local gym and this is how he began his boxing career. He credits Stoner with giving him the “real training”, eventually molding “my style, my stamina, and my system.”

In Muhammad Ali’s first amateur bout in the year 1954, he won the fight by a split decision. He then went on to win the “1956 Golden Gloves Tournament” for amateurs in the light heavyweight category. Later in 1959, Ali conquered the “National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions”, and also the “Amateur Athletic Union” title for the light heavyweight category. In 1960, he got his gold medal in boxing light heavyweight category in the Summer Olympics, Rome. Muhammad Ali’s amateur boxing record stood at 100 wins and only 5 losses. After his Olympic triumph, Muhammad Ali was declared as an American hero. Louisville Sponsoring Group backed Ali with the sponsorships, so he decided to turn professional.

Professional Career

Muhammad Ali made his professional boxing debut on October 29, 1960, against Tunney Hunsaker. He won the bout in six rounds. For the next six years, Ali went on to win 19 matches without losing any match. 15 of those matches were won by knockouts. These weren’t small fights by any means. He defeated several distinguished boxers including Jim Robinson, Tony Esperti, Donnie Fleeman, Alonzo Johnson, George Logan, Willi Besmanoff, LaMar Clark, Doug Jones, Henry Cooper, and his former trainer Archie Moore.

In each of these bouts, Ali used to vocally belittle his opponents and bragged about his own strength. He once referred to Doug Jones as an “ugly little man” and called Henry Cooper a “bum”. He also said that getting in the ring with Alex Miteff was very embarrassing for him and that the popular arena “Madison Square Garden” was “too small for him”. Later in an interview, Ali admitted that he was motivated by the professional wrestler “Gorgeous George Wagner” and it was him who inspired Ali for using such provocative wrestling lingo when he did all the interviews. At the same time, Ali used to refer himself as “the greatest”. He always used to boast about his strengths before a fight. His one such self-praising phrases became an instant hit when he said that he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in a boxing ring.

Muhammad Ali was rising to the top, still undefeated. In 1963, he became the top contender for Sonny Liston’s title, who was the boxing World Heavyweight Champion. Liston was a dominating boxer and intimidating as well. He was favored to win the bout between him and Ali. However, that did not stop Ali from making provocative comments before the fight. He said that Liston was “the big ugly bear” and “he even smells like a bear”. He further added that “after I beat him I’m going to donate him to the zoo.” Just before the fight, in the ring, Ali shouted at Liston saying “someone is going to die at ringside tonight.” Most of the spectators believed that Ali was afraid and all the trash talking was out of fear. Ali was clearly the underdog in the match with odds stacking 7-1 against him. But Ali rose to the occasion and defeated Liston in the 7th round by TKO (Technical Knockout). The outcome was a major upset. Ali became the youngest (22 years) boxer ever to take the title of a Heavyweight Championship from a reigning champion. After the fight, Ali paced towards the ringside press and shouted “Eat your words! I am the greatest! I shook up the world. I’m the prettiest thing that ever lived.” Liston and Ali had a rematch again in the year 1965. The whole fight lasted for less than 2 minutes as Ali knocked out Liston in the very first round. Ali’s impressive professional boxing record now stood at 21 wins and 0 losses.

In 1966, Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted in the armed forces, which was obligatory in those days. Leading to his refusal from the draft, boxing associations of every state in  America, systematically, refused boxing license to Ali and also stripped his passport. As a result, Ali was not able to fight in his prime time from the year 1967 to 1970. He had to give away his heavyweight championship. He was granted a boxing license by the City of Atlanta Athletic Commission in August 1970, where he fought and bested Jerry Quarry in three rounds. A few weeks later, New York State Boxing Commission had to reinstate Ali’s license after losing the case in Federal Court. Ali fought Oscar Bonavena in Madison Square Garden and won the match by a technical knockout. Muhammad Ali raised his tally to a remarkable 31 wins from 31 fights and was again a contender for the championship against Joe Frazier.

Before the fight, Joe Frazier had fought 26 bouts and won all 26. The whole world got so excited and enthusiastic about the bout between the two undefeated boxing stars, that the match was nicknamed “The Fight of the Century”.

Ali started training for the match at a farm at Reading, Pennsylvania. He loved training in the countryside so much that he decided to build a real training camp in Deer Park, Pennsylvania. This camp was named “Fighter Heaven” and Ali trained here for all of his fights for rest of his career from 1972 to 1981.

Days leading up to the fight with Frazier, Muhammad Ali started with the trash talking and name calling. He described Frazier as a “dumb tool of the white establishment.” Often referring to him as “Uncle Tom”, he also said that “Frazier is too ugly and dumb to be champ”.

It was March 8, 1971, the night of one of the biggest fights in boxing history. The bout was broadcasted in 35 countries outside America. The match started with Ali constantly engaging Frazier and putting him under pressure. Frazier, however, kept on attacking Ali’s body in particular and scoring regularly. In the first few rounds, the score looked even, but Ali had never taken this much beating in his entire career. Ali showcased what was to become his famous rope-a-dope strategy for the first time in this match. He leaned upon the ropes and absorbed as many hits as he could from Frazier, in order to tire him. In the final round of the match, Frazier knocked down Ali with a fierce left hook. The match referee asserted, “that was as hard as a man can be hit”. Ali though got back on his feet in just three seconds. After the final round, Frazier stood triumphant by a unanimous decision, giving Muhammad Ali, his first ever defeat in his professional career.

After losing to Joe Frazier, Ali went on to win a total of 9 fights in the year 1971 and 1972. In March 1973, American boxer, Ken Norton broke Ali’s jaw, resulting in the second loss of his career. Ali was 31 years old and he considered retiring from the sport, but instead, he got himself a rematch with Ken Norton, which he won by a split decision.

On January 28, 1974, a rematch was set between Muhammad Ali and his old rival, Joe Frazier. Frazier had already lost his World Heavyweight Championship, a year back, to George Foreman (nicknamed, The Big George). This fight was as intense as the first one. Ali attacked and shocked Frazier in the initial rounds, but Frazier came back strongly in the middle rounds to level up the scores. Ali was aware of Frazier left hook and moved swiftly to avoid the mistake that he made in their first fight. The last four rounds saw both fighters head to head, advancing and attacking and the momentum continued to shift from one to another. After the final round, Muhammad Ali was declared the winner by the judges, unanimously.

The victory against Joe Frazier set the stage for Muhammad Ali to fight for the heavyweight champion title which was being held by George Foreman. The match was set at Kinshasa, Zaire, on October 30, 1974. The bout was nicknamed “The Rumble in the Jungle.”

George Foreman was recognized as one of the hardest punchers in boxing history. According to analysts, Muhammad Ali, even though more popular with the boxing fraternity and fans, was not favored to win the fight. In the past Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, both had defeated Muhammad Ali in some grave encounters. But both of them were knocked out in the second rounds by George Foreman. Moreover, Ali was not the young guy anymore. He was 32 years old now and he clearly had lost his speed and reflexes, compared to what he had in his twenties. So, almost no one thought that Ali stood a chance in this bout against the Big George.

A day prior to the fight, Ali appeared in front of the press, brimming with confidence. He said, “If you think the world was surprised when Nixon resigned, wait ’til I whup Foreman’s behind!” In another statement, he said “I’ve done something new for this fight. 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, hospitalized a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.” Muhammad Ali had an immense fan following in Zaire. Everywhere he went, the masses chanted “Ali, Kill him”.

The fight started with Ali moving swiftly, throwing right crosses on Foreman’s head, in the first round. To everyone’s dismay, Ali moved towards the corner and executed the rope-a-dope strategy. He invited Foreman to hit him. While he defended and counter-attacked him, he was verbally taunting Foreman. This infuriated Foreman as he started throwing wild punches that landed nowhere. Soon he started getting tired, and at this moment, Ali started advancing and attacking him much more frequently, with flurries of effective and hard-hitting punches. The crowd went berserk at this spectacle. Foreman was clearly exhausted and Ali knocked him down in the eighth round. The jubilant crowd cheered as Muhammad Ali, regained the World Heavyweight Champion title.

After the fight, George Foreman said: “I thought Ali was just one more knockout victim until, about the seventh round, I hit him hard to the jaw and he held me and whispered in my ear: ‘That all you got, George?’ I realized that this ain’t what I thought it was.”

After becoming the world heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali agreed to another fight with Joe Frazier. The bout was scheduled for October 1, 1975, in Manila and was nicknamed “Thrilla in Manila”. In the first round, Ali moved aggressively and swiftly and attacked Frazier regularly. But again he decided to opt for rope-a-dope strategy. Ali took a heavy toll from Frazier’s attacks but did some effective counter-punching during this time. By the 12th round, Frazier seemed exhausted and Ali advanced and scored some fierce blows, that closed Frazier’s left eye and opened a cut above his right eye. He could barely see now as both his eyes were shut, but he kept on fighting. Ali dominated rounds 13th and 14th. Joe Frazier’s coach asked the fight to be stopped before the beginning of round 15, despite Frazier’s protests. Muhammad Ali won the match by TKO.

Reflecting on the fight, Ali said that this bout “was the closest thing to dying that I know”. He praised Joe Frazier as “the greatest fighter of all times next to me.”

Muhammad Ali fought Ken Norton for the third time on September 28, 1976, at Yankee Stadium, New York. Ali won the bout by a unanimous decision but it was a fiercely competed fight and the audience booed at the decision by the judges. Soon after, Ali announced his retirement from boxing, to practice his faith. However, he came out of retirement in May 1977 to fight the Uruguay boxer, Alfredo Evangelista. Ali won the fight after 15 rounds by a unanimous decision. Later that year he fought Earnie Shavers and won that fight too. Ali’s professional boxing record now stood at 57 bouts, 55 wins, and 2 losses.

Ferdie Pacheo, Ali’s longtime doctor was concerned with Ali’s condition, especially after his bout with Earnie Shavers. He reported that Ali’s kidneys were not working perfectly and advised Ali to consider retirement. He tried to convince Ali’s trainer, his wife and Ali himself but was ignored. Pacheo decided that enough was enough and called it quits.

Next year, on February 15, 1978, a fight was scheduled with Leon Spinks at Hilton Hotels, Las Vegas. Spinks, who started his professional boxing career in 1977, only had seven professional fights to his name out of which he won 6 and drew one. Ali took it lightly and didn’t do much training or preparations prior to the fight. Ali lost the match to Leon Spinks by a split decision, resulting in his third ever loss. He also lost the heavyweight champion title. On September 15, 1978, another match was set between Ali and Spinks at Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana. Ali won the fight by a unanimous decision and regained the title for the heavyweight champion. Ali became to first boxer ever to win the heavyweight championship belt, three times. Again, Ali announced his retirement from the sport, on July 27, 1979, with 56 wins and 3 losses under his name.

Muhammad Ali desired to be the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship for the unprecedented fourth time. So he announced his comeback to fight Larry Holmes for the title. Ali was though, really out of shape. He had been taking thyroid medication to lose weight. He also started struggling with vocal stuttering and trembling hands at this point. Boxing writer Richie Giachetti wrote “Larry didn’t want to fight Ali. He knew Ali had nothing left; he knew it would be a horror.”

The fight between Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes was set for October 2, 1980, at Caesars Palace, Paradise, Nevada. Larry dominated the fight since the first round. Angelo Dundee stepped in to stop the fight before the commencement of 11th round. Ali lost a match for the first time via stoppage. The fight was described by many as “awful”. Actor Sylvester Stallone who was at the ringside described the bout like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive. This fight was later said to have contributed to Ali’s Parkinson’s disease.

Ali fought one last time against Canadian boxer, Trevor Berbick on December 11, 1981, which he lost after 10 rounds by a unanimous decision. In his last 4 bouts, Ali had lost 3 matches. At this moment, Ali was 39 years old and he decided to retire from the sport, once and for all. By the end of his career, Ali had absorbed more than 200,000 hits. His final professional record stood at 61 bouts, 56 wins, and 5 losses.

Conversion to Islam

Ali was aware of “Nation of Islam” (often referred to as Black Muslims) since 1959 when he was still an amateur boxing athlete. He first attended their conference in 1961 and kept on doing so until later, but decided not to publicize his involvement. However, when he decided to join the Nation of Islam, he was refused entry into the group due to his carrier in boxing. Things changed when he won the championship title from Liston in 1964. Nation of Islam was more than happy to have him aboard as a member. Soon after the fight, it was announced on a radio show by the leader of Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, that formerly known Cassius Clay would be renamed as Muhammad Ali.

Ali later announced that “Cassius Clay is my slave name”. Just to let Americans know him further, he added “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.”

Most of the white folks in America and some African American people use to consider Nation of Islam as a black separatists hate group who had the tendency to get violent. Muhammad Ali used his influence to spread Nation of Islam’s teachings. He said, “My enemy is the white people, not Viet Cong or Chinese or Japanese.”. When talking about integration, he said “We who follow the teachings of Elijah Muhammad don’t want to be forced to integrate. Integration is wrong. We don’t want to live with the white man; that’s all.” It was ironic, however, that while the Nation of Islam considered white people as some sort of devils, Ali on other hand had more white colleagues than any African American man, during those times. And he continued to have great relations with them, throughout his career.

In 1972, Ali went on to Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca where he met people of different colors from around the World. Here he gained different perspective and outlook towards life and gained much spiritual awareness. In 1977, he said that when he retires, he will dedicate rest of life to getting “ready to meet God” by helping people, charitable causes, uniting people and helping to make peace.

Later in his life, Muhammad Ali started developing an interest in Sufism, after reading the books of Inayat Khan. In the year 2005, he converted into Sufi Islam as he felt that was most inclined to Sufism teachings out of all Islamic sects. However, a few years later, the traditional Sunni-Sufis criticized the teachings of Inayat Khan as being contradictory to the true teachings of Sunni Islam. Ali then distanced himself from Inayat Khan’s teachings and instead sought guidance from various Sunni-Sufi scholars such as Grand Mufti of Syria Almarhum Asy-Syaikh Ahmed Kuftaro, Shaykh Hisham Kabbani, Imam Zaid Shakir, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti.

Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti was at Muhammad Ali’s bedside throughout his last days and also assured that Ali’s funeral was in accordance with Islamic rites and customs.

Personal Life

Muhammad Ali was married four times. He had 9 children – seven daughters and two sons.

Ali met Sonji Roy who was a cocktail waitress and asked her to marry him on the very first date. A month later, on August 14, 1964, they got married. However, soon they started quarreling a lot. Specifically, as Sonji would not accept the Nation of Islam’s dress codes and customs. She also questioned the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. Their marriage failed and they got divorced on January 10, 1966. They did not have any children. Reflecting on the failed marriage, Ali said “She wouldn’t do what she was supposed to do. She wore lipstick; she went into bars; she dressed in clothes that were revealing and didn’t look right.”.

Ali got married for the second time to a 17-year-old girl named Belinda Boyd on August 17, 1967. Soon after the wedding, Belinda got converted to Islam, just like Ali. She officially changed her name to Khalilah Ali. Together they had four children. Maryum (born 1968), twins Jamillah and Rasheda (born 1970), and Muhammad Ali Jr. (born 1972).

Ali was still married to Khalilah Ali when he began an illicit extramarital affair with a 16-year-old, Wanda Bolton. They together had a daughter named Khaliah (born 1974). Wanda Bolton subsequently changed her name to Aaisha Ali. Muhammad Ali married Aaisha Ali as per Islamic rituals, but their marriage was legally not recognized as he was still married to Khalilah Ali (Belinda Boyd). Ali had fathered another daughter, Miya (born 1972), from an extramarital affair with Patricia Harvell.

In 1977, Muhammad Ali and Khalilah Ali got divorced. At this time, Ali was openly seen in public with his girlfriend, Veronica Porché, who became his third wife. At the time of their marriage, they already had a baby girl named Hana, and Veronica was pregnant with their second child, Laila Ali. Laila went on to follow Muhammad Ali footsteps and became a boxing champion, and remained undefeated throughout her career. Veronica Porché and Muhammad Ali separated in 1986.

On November 19, 1986, Muhammad Ali married his fourth and final wife, Yolanda (“Lonnie”) Williams. Ali and Lonnie had been friends since 1964. Ali was 21 years old and Lonnie was six years old when they first met. Their mothers lived on the same street in Louisville and were best friends. After their marriage, they decided to adopt a five-month-old son, Asaad Amin. They remained married until Muhammad Ali’s death in the year 2016.

Muhammad Ali Net Worth

By the time, Muhammad Ali retired, his total fight purse earnings were estimated to be approximately $70 million. However, in 1978, Ali confessed that he is broke and analysts scrutinized his net worth to be around $3.5 million. Analyst determined several factors that led to a decline in his wealth, like taxes which accounted for nearly half his income and the management that took a third of his income. The rest of the money he spent on his lavish lifestyle, on his family, religion, and charities.

In 2005, Muhammad Ali sold the rights to his name and image to Robert Sillerman for $50 million. After his death, his total wealth was evaluated to be around $60 to $80 million.

Philanthropy

Muhammad Ali was known for being a humanitarian and devoted much of his time to philanthropy, especially after his retirement. He focused on charities and good deeds as he considered it his Islamic duty. Over the years, he donated millions to charity organizations and disadvantaged people from all religious backgrounds. He supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among many other organizations. It has been determined that Ali helped feed over 22 million people afflicted by hunger, across the entire world.

Ali’s work as a humanitarian and philanthropist knows no boundaries.

In 1974, Ali visited South Lebanon and declared his “support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland.”

After his loss to Leon Spinks in 1978, Ali went to Bangladesh where he was presented with an honorary citizenship. The same year, Ali participated in “The Longest Walk”, which was a protest march in the United States in support of Native American rights.

In 1989, Ali visited India, for a charity event for the Muslim Educational Society, along with the Bollywood actor, Dilip Kumar.

An year later, he traveled to Iraq, to meet Saddam Hussein, in an attempt to negotiate the freedom of American hostages, which Saddam willingly allowed.

In 1994, Ali appealed to the United States government to aid the refugees afflicted by the Rwandan genocide and also to donate towards the organizations that were helping Rwandan refugees.

Later in 1996, Ali had the honor to lit the Olympic cauldron at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1998, Ali collaborated with the actor, Michael J Fox, to raise awareness and fund research for the study and find a cure for Parkinson’s disease.

In November 2002, Ali was elected by U.N. as their “messenger of peace” and was sent to Afghanistan for a three-day goodwill mission.

In 2012, he was presented the “Philadelphia Liberty Medal” in honor of his lifetime efforts in activism, philanthropy, and humanitarianism.

Parkinson’s Disease

In the year 1984, Muhammad Ali announced that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a condition in which parts of the brain become progressively damaged over the years. Ali remained positive and active during his progression with Parkinson’s disease and the onset of spinal stenosis. He established and inaugurated Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona and raised funds for the same to create awareness and to find the cure. Just a few years before his death, Ali underwent surgery for spinal stenosis, a condition that was responsible for limiting his mobility and restricting his ability to communicate.

Muhammad Ali Death & Memorial

Muhammad Ali was admitted in hospital for a mild case of pneumonia on On December 20, 2014. He was once again admitted to hospital on January 15, 2015, for a severe urinary tract infection, but was released the next day.

On June 2, 2016, Ali was again hospitalized in Scottsdale, Phoenix, Arizona, due to respiratory illness. His condition was initially described as “not serious”, but it worsened over a few hours. Muhammad Ali passed away the next day in the hospital on June 3, 3016. At the age of 74.

Muhammad Ali along with Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti and other Islamic scholars had preplanned his memorial many years prior to his death. In Ali’s words, he wanted to be “inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that wants to pay their respects to me”.

The memorial service commenced in Louisville on June 9, 2016, with an Islamic Janazah prayer service, at the Kentucky Exposition Center.

On June 10, 2016, the funeral procession traveled around 20 miles in the streets of Louisville, Kentucky, passing by Muhammad Ali’s childhood home, his school, his first gym, and the Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Thousands of people gathered on the streets and tossed flowers on to his hearse and cheered his name. The procession ended at Cave Hill Cemetery, where Ali was interred in a private ceremony including only his family and friends.

Later in the day, a public memorial service was held at Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center. The pallbearers included Will Smith, Lennox Lewis, Mike Tyson, George Chuvalo, Larry Holmes and George Foreman. Over 20,000 people attended the memorial service, and an estimated 1 billion viewers across the world watched the broadcast.

Religious leaders of various faiths, along with Attallah Shabazz, Bryant Gumbel, former President Bill Clinton, Billy Crystal were the chief speakers. Muhammad Ali’s daughters Maryum and Rasheda and widow Lonnie Williams also spoke at the memorial service.

Lonnie said, “Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world. She added “In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up during segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”

Muhammad Ali, nicknamed “The Greatest”, was not only the best at his athletic skills, but he also showed the world, his courage to stand up against any challenges (whether political or social) and his willingness to speak his mind. He will always be remembered as the best boxing champion, there ever was.


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