The Greatest

Muhammad Ali has been a fighter all his life, both in and out of the ring. He initially found fame as a champion boxer, celebrated for his unorthodox ring style and witty talk before, during, and after fights.

But Ali’s charisma and commitment to social and political causes saw him transcend boxing to become one of the most famous people on the planet, at a time when black people lacked basic civil rights in America. Discover how Ali became a modern icon.

17 Jan 1942

A star is born


Cassius Clay

Cassius Clay at the age of 12.

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay Jr. in Louisville, Kentucky.

His father was a sign painter and his mother a part-time cook and cleaner for wealthy families. Although they lived in a middle-class black neighbourhood, Kentucky law enforced a code of racial segregation that precluded black people from using many of the same public facilities as their white neighbours. The indignities forced on Clay and his family, as well as national outrages such as the racially-motivated murder of 14 year old Emmett Till in 1955, deeply troubled Clay from an early age.

BBC News: Who was Emmett Till?

When he was a child he never sat still. He walked and talked and did everything before his time.

Odessa Grady Clay, Muhammad Ali's mother.

17 January 1954

A stolen gift

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Clay talks about meeting Joe Martin, the man who introduced him to boxing.

When Clay was twelve years old, his parents bought him a bike for his birthday. It was stolen while he was at a local fair.

Furious, Clay went to report the theft to a local policeman named Joe Martin. Martin was a boxing instructor as well as an officer. As Clay threatened to find and beat up the thief, Martin suggested he learn how to fight before dishing out threats. Martin became Clay’s first trainer. Clay soon won an array of titles on the amateur boxing circuit under Martin's guidance.

Jack Johnson: The first black heavyweight champion David Remnick: The Invention of Ali

5 September 1960

Clay wins gold


Muhammad Ali wins gold at the 1960 Olympics

Clay on the podium after receiving his gold medal in Rome.

At 18, Clay qualified for the Olympics in Rome. He charmed the world media and proved popular among his fellow athletes.

He proved himself in the ring too, winning gold as a light-heavyweight. Clay was famously proud of his medal, wearing it constantly during his stay in Italy and on his return to the United States. He was honoured with a victory parade in his home town of Louisville but was later refused service in a whites-only diner and other public facilities. The segregation laws still applied to him - Olympic champion or not.

When Clay won goldOlympic archive: Clay interviewed before fight

Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.

Muhammad Ali

29 October 1960

Turning professional


Henry Cooper fights Cassius Clay

Henry Cooper in the ring with Cassius Clay.

Eight weeks after his victory in Rome, Clay won his first professional bout. All the trademarks of his unorthodox style were on display.

Clay had immense confidence in his speed and agility, often leaving his guard down and leaning back to avoid punches. Clay's showmanship was also evident in early bouts, as he dazzled media and fans with his bravado and predicted the round in which his fights would end. He faced tough opponents, including popular Englishman Henry Cooper, who knocked him down with a powerful left hook. But Clay maintained an unblemished ring record. He would soon prove himself against his toughest opponent yet.

In his own words: Ali's one-liners and witticismsThe man who knocked down Ali: Henry Cooper obituary

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Ali on his famous style.

6 March 1964

Muhammad Ali is born

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Muhammad Ali announces his name to the press.

Speculation about Clay's religious beliefs had been fuelled by his relationship with black civil rights leader and Nation of Islam member, Malcolm X.

After defeating Liston, Clay publicly acknowledged he was a member of the religious movement. In March, he was given the name Muhammad Ali by his spiritual mentor, Elijah Muhammad. Ali accepted the group's controversial doctrine, including a call for apartheid between the races. It made him a pariah in some circles but, for many, he was a symbol of black pride, refusing to play the role of the 'compliant negro' in order to gain acceptance from the white establishment.

When Muhammad met MalcolmBitesize: The Nation of Islam

Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn't choose it and I don't want it. I am Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad Ali

28 Apr 1967

Ali vs. US government

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

News report on Muhammad Ali's convicted for draft evasion.

As war unfolded in Vietnam, Ali received a notice drafting him into the US Army. His next fight would be in a courtroom, rather than a boxing ring.

Ali objected to serving in the military because of his religious beliefs. He also referenced the mistreatment of black Americans, saying he refused to co-operate with the US government in oppressing another race of people. He was stripped of his championship, indicted for draft evasion, fined $10,000 and sentenced to five years in prison. Three years later, his conviction was overturned. Away from the ring, Ali toured colleges and spoke out on a variety of social and political issues.

Radio 4: Wars, Lies and Audiotape

I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality.

Muhammad Ali's public statement on his opposition to the Vietnam war

8 March 1971

'The Fight of the Century'


Joe Fraizer defeats Muhammad Ali in 1971.

Joe Fraizer defeats Muhammad Ali in Madison Square Gardens, 1971.

In 1970, Ali returned to boxing, knocking out Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena. Next up was Joe Frazier, who had become the heavyweight champion.

Frazier and Ali clashed over more than just the title: to Frazier’s dismay, the two men became symbols and proxy warriors for opposing social, political, and religious beliefs. Ali, an outspoken advocate of black self-realisation, dismissed Fraizer in pre-fight interviews as an 'Uncle Tom.' Their fight at Madison Square Garden was watched by millions of people in America and around the world. Frazier won a unanimous 15-round decision - it was Ali’s first professional loss.

Photographer on Ali v Fraizer Ali and Fraizer: A timeless rivarly Where were you for the 'Fight of the Century?'

I’ve tussled with a whale, I done handcuffed lightning and throw thunder in jail!

Muhammad Ali on his preparation before facing George Foreman for Rumble in the Jungle.

30 Oct 1974

Rumble in the Jungle

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Ali's pre-match interview before his fight with George Foreman.

Ali had a chance to reclaim his title in Zaire against a new world champion: the hard-hitting heavyweight George Foreman.

Again, Ali entered the ring as a 3-to-1 underdog. But in front of 80,000 fans, he unveiled a new tactic - the ‘rope-a-dope’. Leaning back against the ropes, Ali avoided most punches to the head and absorbed punishing body blows before counter-attacking with straight right hands. In the middle rounds, Foreman tired. In round eight, Ali launched a powerful combination that knocked the champion to the canvas. "Oh my God," said BBC commentator Harry Carpenter, "he's won the world title back at 32.”

The Rumble remembered, by those who were thereWatch: The story of Ali v Foreman

I don't call him the best boxer of all time, but he's the greatest human being I ever met.

George Foreman, on Muhammad Ali.

10 Dec 1974

A global superstar


Ali in front of reporters

Ali in front of a crowd of reporters in 1974.

Ali’s victory over Foreman reinforced his position as the most recognisable person on the planet.

His famous fans included Elvis, Bertrand Russell and Nelson Mandela. In an effort to heal rifts caused by the war in Vietnam and racial divisions within the United States, President Gerald Ford invited him to the White House in December 1974. Then, in 1975, Ali abandoned Nation of Islam teachings in favour of orthodox Islam. He has since declared, “Colour doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count.

Why Ali was the greatest, in and out of the ringLou Reed remembers Ali

Parachute me into High Street, China and every kid would know who I am.

Muhammad Ali

1 Oct 1975

Thrilla in Manilla

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Ali speaks to the press after his historic fight with Joe Fraizer.

It had been four years since Ali won a low-key rematch against Joe Frazier in New York. Their rivalry stood at one win each.

Ali's womanizing became a sub-plot to the bout after he brought his mistress to a reception at the presidential palace in Manila. Meanwhile, tensions between Ali and Frazier were running higher than ever, as Ali continued to goad his opponent in public. He branded Frazier ‘a gorilla.’ The fight lasted a punishing 14 rounds. Ali prevailed when Frazier’s corner halted the brutal back-and-forth carnage. Ali later described the fight as “the closest thing to death” he’d ever experienced.

Thrilla in Manila: 40 years onThe greatest fight of all time?

Sept 15 1978

The later years


Retired Ali

Ali pictured before his final fight, against Trevor Berbick, in 1980.

After Manila, Ali defended his championship six times before his loss to Leon Spinks, a largely untested fighter with seven pro fights to his credit.

Seven months later, in September 1978, he defeated Spinks in a rematch to claim the heavyweight crown for an unprecedented third time. After a brief retirement, Ali made an ill-advised comeback against Larry Holmes and suffered the only knock-out loss of his career. He retired permanently at age 40 with a ring record of 56 wins and 5 losses.

Ali v Leon Spinks Ali interviewed in 1978

I’m prouder of sparring with Ali when he was young than I am of beating him when he was old.’

Larry Holmes, reflecting on his defeat over Muhammad Ali in 1980.

5 Feb 1980

On the world stage


Muhammad Ali with President Jimmy Carter

Muhammad Ali with President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

Ali was not a diplomat but he was enlisted into diplomatic causes by the US government due to his popularity at home and abroad.

In 1980, President Carter sent Ali to Africa to gather support for a US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics. But the mission offended many African leaders and was widely considered to be a diplomatic failure. In 1990, Ali went to Iraq on his own accord to help negotiate the release of American hostages captured after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Fifteen hostages were released, aided by Ali's profile.

Jimmy Carter's disastrous Olympic boycott Could what Ali did in Iraq happen today?


A new fight


Muhammad Ali in China

Muhammad Ali visiting China during his retirement in 1985.

In the early 1980s, Ali developed noticeable tremors and slurs in his speech. In 1984, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's.

Ali's physicians linked his condition to the repeated blows to the head sustained during his boxing career. Ali, however, has stated that he does not believe his condition is caused by boxing. In the ensuing years, Ali became a visible symbol of courage in the face of physical disability and helped raise millions of dollars for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Center.

What is Parkinson's?

29 June 1990

Fighter turned philanthropist


Muhammad Ali meets Nelson Mandela

Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela meet in 1991.

Throughout his retirement, Ali has devoted himself to humanitarian work and charitable causes.

Many of Ali's most high profile fights were staged in developing countries, partly in a bid to shine a global spotlight on them. He continued to make trips as a goodwill ambassador to troubled nations, such as North Korea and Afghanistan, and delivered $1 million of medical supplies to Cuba. In 1990, Ali met Nelson Mandela in Los Angeles, paying his respects to a fellow advocate of civil rights and political freedom.

Nelson Mandela: The last great liberator?

19 July 1996

An emotional return

You need to have JavaScript enabled to view this clip.

Ali receives the BBC Sports Personality of the Century award, 2000.

In the summer of 1996, a trembling Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta.

His appearance generated a worldwide outpouring of love, reaffirming his status as an iconic symbol of tolerance, understanding, and courage. In 1999, in acknowledgement of his humanitarian work in impoverished countries, Ali was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. A Hollywood movie starring Will Smith dramatising his life and career was released in 2001. Ali made a number of public appearances to promote the film.

Watch Ali light the Olympic torch in 1996

14 Nov 2005

The champion honoured


Muhammad Ali

Ali receiving the Medal of Freedom in 2005, and advising President Bush not to take him on in a fight.

Ali has been the recipient of a myriad of honours, in appreciation of his lifelong fight for civil rights and religious freedoms.

In 2005, Ali was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour that can be bestowed on a civilian in America. Although he did not speak, Ali's sense of humour was still on full display: when President Bush threw a mock punch at the former champion, Ali twirled a finger round his head to indicate he would be crazy to take him on in a fight. That same year saw the opening of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, a non-profit museum celebrating Ali's life and achievements.

The Muhammad Ali Center

27 July 2012

A living legend


Ali at 2012 Olympics

Muhammad Ali at the Olympic Games in London, 2012.

Over fifty years after his first attendance at the Olympic Games in Rome, Ali made a poignant return to the world stage.

At the 2012 Olympics in London, Ali was designated as an honorary flag bearer. Although his frail physical condition prevented him from carrying the flag, he stood for part of the ceremony with the support of his wife, Lonnie. Ali's appearance was rapturously received by fans in the packed stadium and around the world; a fitting tribute to one of the greats of sporting history whose remarkable life transcends the ropes of the boxing ring.

Ali and his Olympic legacy