Muhammad Ali: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Lorrine Garrison-Boyd
'Float like a butterfly sting like a bee' is probably Muhammad Ali's most famous quote, describing his own unique boxing technique. This lesson explores his life accomplishments, athletic achievements, and other famous sayings.

Cassius Clay

On January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born. He was the first child of his parents, Odessa and Cassius Clay, Sr. At the time, Louisville was a segregated city, which presented challenges for the young boy, including discrimination and prejudice. These experiences sparked a special interest for Cassius: passion for boxing.

When Clay was twelve years old and discovered his bike was stolen, he told a police officer named Joe Martin that he wanted to beat up the thief. Officer Martin, who actually trained boxers at a local gym, told him he would first need to learn how to fight. This started Clay's boxing training, who as an adult changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

In 1954, Clay fought and won his first amateur fight, six weeks after starting his training. Two years later, Clay again won a fight, this time a Golden Gloves tournament for amateurs in the light heavyweight class. At the age of eighteen, he won the Amateur Athletic Unions national title and the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, both in the light heavyweight division.

Ali started his boxing career at a young age

Olympic Winner and World Champion

After graduating from high school in 1960, Clay won a spot with the U. S. Olympic boxing team. He traveled to Rome, Italy to compete for a medal in the light heavyweight division. He won his first three fights and defeated a boxer from Poland, winning the Olympic gold medal.

Clay was regarded as an American hero and earned the support of the Louisville Sponsoring Group. This was a group of prominent business men in Louisville who provided the money he needed to start his professional career. He also fought Henry Cooper in 1963, a heavyweight champion from Britain, and Sonny Liston, world heavyweight champion, defeating him in a technical knockout, in 1964. Clay now owned that title.

Winning a gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games

Trouble on the Homefront

In 1964, Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, converted to Islam, and joined a black Muslim group, the Nation of Islam. In April of 1967, he refused to serve in the military, although he was drafted into the Vietnam War. He claimed that since he was now a Muslim minister, his religious beliefs would not allow him to fight in the war.

As a result of refusing military induction, he was stripped of his title and boxing license by the New York State Athletic Commission. Some no longer recognized him as a heavyweight champion, but as a draft dodger, thus hurting his popularity.

A legal case was conducted by the Department of Justice when Ali attempted to obtain status as a conscientious objector. In June 1967, he was convicted of draft evasion and sentenced to five years in prison. He was also fined $10,000, having been found guilty for violating Selective Service laws. While he appealed his case he was able to remain free, but unable to compete in any fights. He missed three prime years of his athletic career.

In 1971, as Ali spoke out publicly against the Vietnam War, which was also losing public support. His conviction was overturned unanimously by the Supreme Court. In addition, the New York State Supreme Court ordered his license reinstated, and Ali resumed his boxing career.

Joining the Nation of Islam and refusing military induction caused Ali to lose his boxing credentials

Making a Comeback

After returning to the sport of boxing, Ali fought 'The Fight of the Century' against Joe Frazier, in a bout that went the distance of 14 rounds. Unexpectedly, Ali was the victim of a powerful left hook, sending him down, and although he quickly rebounded, the judges ruled in favor of Frazier. This was his first loss as a professional boxer. But in 1974, he met Frazier again in a rematch, and won.

Another professional comeback took place in the country of Zaire, in 1974, when Ali fought George Foreman in a fight called the 'Rumble in the Jungle'. In the eighth round of this fight, he proved his critics wrong, knocking out his younger opponent, who the majority of spectators expected to win.

The 'Thrilla in Manila', was Ali's third fight with Frazier, in 1975. This bout continued for 14 rounds, with both men enduring a grueling battle, until Frazier's trainer stopped the fight, giving the win to Ali. He regained his title from Leon Spinks in 1978, earning the title of heavyweight champion three times, the first boxer in the history of the sport, to ever accomplish this feat.

Ali retired from fighting until 1980, when he returned to the ring, competing against Larry Holmes. In 1981, with a professional boxing record of five losses, 56 wins and 37 knockouts, Ali retired from the sport of boxing at the age of 39, for good.

Ali and Frazier 1975

Life After Retirement

In 1984, Ali announced that he had Parkinson's disease, a degenerative neurological condition that seriously damaged his speech and motor skills.

Ali has helped to raise funds for his center, the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center, in Phoenix, Arizona. He has also helped with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Special Olympics. Ali has traveled extensively, helping people in need. He was chosen as the United Nations Messenger of Peace in 1998, based on his contributions to improving life for those living in developing countries. In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush, the same year he opened the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, a 60 million dollar complex.

Ali has been quoted as saying, 'I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.'

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