On April 4, 2012, a sold-out crowd watched as Muhammad Ali delivered the ceremonial first pitch during Opening Day celebrations at Marlins Park baseball stadium in Miami, Florida. But for many it was difficult to make the connection between the 70-year-old man on the field being driven slowly toward the pitcher’s mound in a golf cart, slumped over and silent in his seat, his hands shaking uncontrollably, eyes concealed behind dark sunglasses, and the fierce, quick-footed, quick-witted boxer who at the height of his career took on not only some of the greatest boxers of the era but also racial prejudice, religious discrimination and the U.S. government.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky, on January 17, 1942. His father, Cassius Sr., was a sign painter and his mother, Odessa, was a domestic worker. At age 12, the future champion got his start in boxing when a local police officer, Joe E. Martin, overheard Clay claiming he would “whup” the thief who had stolen his bike and offered to train him. Over the next six years, with Martin as his trainer, Clay would win numerous amateur titles and, in 1960, a gold medal in the summer Olympics in Rome.
The Road to the Title
After returning from Rome, Clay began his professional career and started training with Angelo Dundee. Over the next three years, he worked his way quickly through the heavyweight circuit, amassing an impressive 19–0 record, and, along the way becoming known for both his unorthodox, agile fighting style and his brash, outspoken persona both in and out of the ring. Clay’s shot at the heavyweight title came on February 25, 1964, when he faced then champion Sonny Liston. When Clay, the 7–1 underdog, defeated Liston by a sixth-round unanimous decision, he became, at age 22, the youngest boxer ever to take the title from a reigning champion.
The day after winning the heavyweight championship, Clay, who been previously seen in the company of Malcolm X and other members of the Nation of Islam, announced his own conversion to Islam. During a press conference the following month, he announced his new name, Muhammad Ali, which, he said, had been chosen to replace his “slave name.” This decision, and his controversial statements about race, the Vietnam War and religion, made him a controversial figure in both the boxing world—many sportscasters and boxers would refuse to call him by his new name—and in American society in general.
Rumble with the U.S. Government
While continuing to defend his title in the ring, Ali was soon defending himself against the U.S. government as well. When Ali’s draft status was revised to IA in 1966, he publicly declared himself a conscientious objector, saying famously, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Appearing the following year for his scheduled induction into the U.S. Armed Forces, he refused to step forward when his name was called and was promptly arrested for violating the Selective Service Act. Almost immediately following his arrest, he was stripped of his boxing title and had his professional boxing license suspended. Unable to earn a living from boxing, and at a time when opposition to the Vietnam War was growing, Ali supported himself by speaking at colleges and universities. Finally, in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed Ali’s conviction, his license was reinstated and he was permitted to return to boxing.
The Greatest Fighter of All Time
In the years following the Supreme Court's ruling, Ali would have some of his best-known fights, including the so-called “Fight of the Century” in 1971, in which he was defeated by Joe Frazier, to whom Ali’s title had been given when Ali was convicted; “The Rumble in the Jungle,” held in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974, in which he defeated George Foreman; and the “Thrilla in Manilla,” in 1975, in which he defeated Frazier for the second time since his 1971 loss. After several more victories, in 1978 Ali lost his title to Leon Spinks. But eight months later, he defeated Spinks to win back the title for a record-setting third time. After a brief retirement, on October 2, 1980, Ali lost a fight to Larry Holmes. The following year he again lost, in a 10-round decision to Trevor Berbick. It would be his final fight. But for Muhammad Ali, life after boxing proved to be neither quiet nor controversy free.
Life After the Ring
In 1984, Ali announced that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In the years that followed, while battling the disease, Ali would do much to raise money for Parkinson’s research, most significantly, by organizing a Celebrity Fight Night, which has raised more than $45 million for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center at Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.
Continuing a mission that he began during his boxing career by holding fights in such countries as Zahir and the Philippines, Ali has done extensive charity work to champion the causes of developing nations. He has also done much to support charities in the United States, visiting soup kitchens and hospitals, helping such organizations as the Make-a-Wish-Foundation and the Special Olympics, and advocating laws to help protect children. Ever the controversial figure, Ali has made goodwill missions to such pariah nations as Afghanistan, North Korea, and Cuba, and during the Gulf War traveled to Iraq to negotiate the release of American hostages.
For both his achievements as an athlete and his charitable work since his retirement, Muhammad Ali has received countless honors and awards. During the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics he was chosen to light the Olympic flame; in 1998 he received the United Nations Messenger of Peace award; in 1999 Sports Illustrated and the BBC named him Sportsman of the Century; and in 2005 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1999, decades after Muhammad Ali won his first heavyweight title, he finally made the cover of a Wheaties Box, which was resurrected again this year in celebration of the London Olympics.