When talking about boxing legends, one name springs to mind. Mohammad Ali always referred to himself as ‘The Greatest’, and not many would disagree. Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1942, Ali enjoyed a hugely illustrious boxing career that saw him become a three-time World Heavyweight Champion and a household name around the world.
His achievement in the sport was recognised when he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990. Along with Sugar Ray Robinson, he is regarded as the best pound for pound fighter in the history of the sport, and holds seven wins over seven other Hall of Fame inductees, including George Foreman, Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston.
Ali was as famous for his pre-fight poems as he was for his boxing. He was an extremely enigmatic character, often using psychological tactics before, during and after fights to gain an edge over his competitor. In 1999, Ali received a unique award from the BBC.
He was named BBC Sports Personality of the Century – an award in which he accumulated more votes than the other four nominees combined.
Ali was infamous for having great hand speed and ‘dance-like’ fast feet. Ali summed up his fighting style when he said he would “Float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee”, during the build up to his fight with Sonny Liston in 1964. It wasn’t just his flamboyant out-fighting offensive style that brought him his success; Ali also had a great chin and was able to take a punch.
His style could be described as unorthodox, especially with reference to his stance. Instead of carrying his hands high to defend the face, Ali instead used to rely on his foot speed and cleverness to avoid punches, and carried his hands low.
Ali was coached by Fred Stoner throughout his amateur career, and was very successful under his guidance. Under Stoner’s supervision, Ali amassed six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union National Title, and a Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Ali’s record as an amateur was simply remarkable. He won 100 times, and lost just five.
Professional career- early days
Ali then returned to his hometown, Louisville, to start his professional career. He won his first professional fight in October 1960. In the three years that followed he began to earn the reputation of a good boxer, winning nineteen fights, fifteen of those by way of knockout, and he was yet to lose a fight. What made Ali different was the fact that he began to predict the round in which he would win the fight.
Ali then went on to fight Doug Jones and Henry Cooper, and beat them both narrowly. Ali was now the main contender for Sonny Liston’s title.
A shot at the title
Ali was confident going into the fight with much favoured Sonny Liston. He often referred to Liston as “the big ugly bear” in the build up to the bout. Ali was still known as Cassius Clay until after the fight (when he was set to announce his conversion to Islam).
Liston thought he could beat Clay with a quick knockout, but Clay avoided this by using his speed to get away from Liston’s powerful head and body shots in the early rounds.
Controversy arose in the fourth round when a substance in his eyes blinded Clay. There have been suggestions that Liston’s corner deliberately attempted to cheat, by applying the substance to Liston’s gloves.
However, these suggestions remain unconfirmed. Liston now had the upper hand in the fight, as Clay’s vision was becoming a problem for him. However, Clay’s sweat soon rinsed the substance from his eyes, and he began to dominate Liston with punishing combinations.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Liston stayed in his corner for the seventh round, meaning Clay took the title. The boxing world was shocked.
The rematch in 1965 was remembered for the ‘phantom punch’, a punch to the side of the head that knocked out Liston in the first round.
Religion, Vietnam, and a target for outrage
After winning Liston’s title in 1964, Clay revealed that he was a member of the Nation of Islam – a movement which was largely referred to as the Black Muslims at the time. Clay’s new name was Mohammad (meaning one who is worthy of praise) Ali (meaning fourth rightly guided caliph). However, many journalists did not accept this at the time, and the Nation gave Clay the name Cassius X, using the X as a symbol of his ancestor’s enslavement.
Ali’s support of the Nation of Islam made him the subject of much controversy, and he went from being an outspoken boxer, to one of the most recognisable and controversial figures in the world.
Controversy surrounding Ali was made worse when he refused to serve in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He was a conscientious objector and believed that going to war would be against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an.
After successfully defending his heavyweight title nine times between 1965 and 1967, Ali was again surrounded by controversy. He refused three times to step forward at the call of his name at his induction into the U.S. Armed Forces.
After receiving a warning from an officer, who said that Ali was committing a crime that could see him imprisoned for five years with a fine of $10,000, Ali again refused to step forward. That very day, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license and stripped him of his title.
The trial took place two months later. The jury only needed 21 minutes of deliberation before finding Ali guilty, and a maximum sentence was imposed. However, it had taken a long time for the case to be sent to the U.S. Supreme Court and over this period of time, support for Ali grew as many turned against the war in Vietnam. Ali was allowed to fight again in 1970.
Fight of the Century
Ali set up a title fight with Joe Frazier, who had won the title during Ali’s absence, after successfully defeating Oscar Bonavena. The title fight took place at Madison Square Garden in March 1971. Many boxing experts believe that this fight was one of the best in the history of the sport.
The fact that both fighters remained undefeated, meant there was a lot of hype surrounding the bout. The fight lived up to the build-up, and Ali was defeated after a hard left hook in the 15th and final round floored him. Frazier had retained his title, and Ali had lost for the first time in his professional career.
It wasn’t too long before Ali had a shot at the title again, this time against George Foreman, who had taken the title from Frazier.
The Rumble in the Jungle
In a fight promoted by Don King, Ali faced Foreman for the heavyweight title in extremely hot and humid conditions in Zaire, in 1974. No one, including his long time supporter Howard Cosell, gave Ali a chance of becoming the champion.
Before the fight, Ali had suggested that he was going to use his speed to keep away from Foreman and outbox him. However, Ali took an unexpected line of attack, and went straight for the champion – something which clearly surprised Foreman.
Foreman had previously won 37 of his 40 bouts by knockout, most within three rounds, and so wasn’t renowned for his staying power. Ali used this to his advantage. Ali decided to make Foreman angry so he would waste all his energy both physically and mentally.
Foreman then proceeded to throw hundreds of punches in the next seven rounds, but it was clear that he was deteriorating. In the eighth round, Ali knocked out Foreman with a series of blows from which Foreman was unable to recover. Against all the odds, Ali had regained his title.
In years to come, many would talk about this fight. It was ranked seventh in the British television programme "The 100 Greatest Sporting Moments".
Thrilla in Manilla
In October 1975, Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time. Huge anticipation surrounded this final clash between two of the greatest heavyweights in the history of the sport. Ali famously referred to the fight: “It’ll be a killa, and a thrilla, and a chilla, when I get the gorilla in Manilla.” Ali was showing signs of being overconfident, as he thought Frazier was past his best, something which only seemed to infuriate Frazier.
The fight lasted an arduous 14 rounds in temperatures nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Ali won the fight when Frazier failed to come out for the 15th and final round, due to his eyes having swollen so much that they were closed. Gracious in triumph, Ali congratulated Frazier on his courageous effort.
Ali’s last fight as a professional boxer would come in 1981, when he lost to Trevor Berbick.
In 1984, Ali discovered he had Parkinson’s disease. It is unsure whether or not his symptoms were caused by boxing. Despite the disability, he remains a beloved and active figure in the public eye. Ali was in the public eye in 1996, when he lit the flame at the Atlanta Olypmics in Georgia. Another proud moment for Ali was when he opened the $60 million non-profit Muhammad Ali Centre in his hometown in 2005. The centre displays his boxing memorabilia and promotes peace, social responsibility, respect, and personal growth.
Since retiring he has been awarded various medals. He has received a Spirit of America Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the “Otto Hahn peace medal in Gold” to name just a few.
Ali was simply the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. This is the belief of many boxing experts and historians, along with the major boxing publication, Ring Magazine, who in 1998 named Mohammad Ali as number one in a ranking of the greatest heavyweights from all eras. He has also been named “Fighter of the Year” more times than any other boxer in this publication. He is also one of only three boxers to be named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated.
Both his athleticism and skill enabled him to be so successful throughout his career. The fact that his character has not withered since he was diagnosed with Pugilistic Parkinson’s syndrome is just further credit to this truly amazing man. Forget about him being the best boxer of all time. Mohammad Ali was the best sportsman of all time.
- WBA Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 25 February 1964 – 19 June 1964
- WBC Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 25 February 1964 – 1967 (stripped)
- WBA Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 6 February 1967 – 1967 (stripped)
- NABF Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 17 December 1970 – 1971 (vacated)
- NABF Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 26 July 1971 – 31 March 1973
- NABF Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 10 October 1973 – 1974 (vacated)
- WBA Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 30 October 1974 – 15 February 1978
- WBC Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 30 October 1974 – 15 February 1978
- WBA Heavyweight Boxing Champion – 15 September 1978 – 1979 (vacated)