History

Muhammad Ali - In training

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was the first man to win the undisputed world heavyweight boxing title three times. Considered a sporting legend and a cultural icon, he was as well known for his beliefs as his boxing.


Photo: Muhammad Ali in training, 1972. (Getty Images)

Introduction

Muhammad Ali - In training Muhammad Ali

Highlights from BBC programmes Video (10)

More information about: Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay on 17 January 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky. Clay was introduced to boxing aged 12. Before turning professional, Clay won numerous amateur titles and achieved an outstanding record of 100 wins to 5 losses. On 5 September 1960, Clay stepped into the Olympic ring and beat Polish boxer Zbigniew Pietrzykowski 5-0 to take the light heavyweight gold medal.

Early boxing career

On 29 October 1960, Clay won his first professional title, embarking on a boxing career that would rock the sporting world. Clay’s unorthodox style relied on deft footwork. He had such confidence in his speed and agility that he would often leave his guard down and taunt opponents to hit him. He also began to predict in which round his fights would end.

Winning the world title

In February 1964, Clay took on Sonny Liston, the world heavyweight champion. The boxing press did not rate Clay’s chances against Liston. In the match Clay used his speed and footwork to outpace the slower Liston and inflict cuts and bruises under his eyes. After the sixth round, Liston retired from the match citing an injured shoulder. Clay won the fight to win the world title. “I am the greatest!” he proclaimed.

The same year, Clay publicly declared that he was a member of the Nation of Islam and that he was to be known as Muhammad Ali, a name given to him by his spiritual leader. His conversion was received with mixed reactions from the public, once again surrounding Ali with controversy.

Vietnam War

As war unfolded in Vietnam, Ali received his draft notice to the US Army. Rather than appeal for exclusion on the grounds of his sporting success, Ali chose to object on the grounds of his religious beliefs that forbade killing in all forms.

Ali was arrested and subsequently fined $10,000 for draft evasion. He was sentenced to five years in jail, later quashed on appeal. He was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title and licence to fight.

Return to boxing

In October 1970, Ali stepped into the ring for his first bout after three-and-a-half-years in exile; he defeated Jerry Quarry in the third round.

Ali signed up to fight the undefeated heavyweight champion Joe Frazier at Madison Square Gardens on 8 March 1971, billed as the 'Fight of the Century’. At the end of 15 rounds, with both fighters still standing, the title was awarded to Frazier by unanimous decision. This was Ali’s first professional loss, although he later went on to defeat Frazier in January 1974.

‘Rumble in the Jungle’

Widely publicised by boxing promoter Don King, Ali met George Foreman in October 1974 for the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire, an attempt to win back his world heavyweight title. This was the first time that Ali revealed his ‘rope-a-dope’ technique. Ali leaned back on the ropes and absorbing the body blows his younger opponent dished out, counterattacking with jabs to Foreman’s face and taunting him to dish out more punches. Foreman began to look tried and weary. At the end of the eighth round Ali launched a powerful combination that knocked Foreman to the canvas. Ali had defied the odds to regain the world title.

‘Thrilla in Manila’

On 1 October 1975, Ali fought Joe Frazier for the third time, in the greatly anticipated ‘Thrilla in Manila’. The match lasted a punishing 14 rounds in tropical heat. Ali finally won through when Frazier’s corner halted the fight. Ali later described the fight as “the closest thing to death” that he’d ever experienced.

Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks, a fighter 12 years his junior, in 1978. In a rematch the same year he managed to win back the heavyweight championship for a third time.

Ali continued to fight even though he was losing form. His bid for the fourth heavyweight title, against former sparring partner Larry Holmes in 1980, was stopped. Ali’s only defeat by anything other than a decision. In December 1981, Ali lost the final fight of his career to Canadian Trevor Berbick on points. Ali retired from boxing at the age of 40.

Parkinson’s disease

In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a condition which has been linked with trauma injuries to the head. Ali was presented with a replica of his lost 1960 Olympic gold medal when he lit the Olympic torch at the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

In 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest U.S. civilian honour, the same year saw the opening of the non-profit Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

At the 2012 Olympic Games in London Ali was a named flag bearer. He was too ill to carry the flag, so he stood in front of it.