Born in Kentucky, January 1942, Cassius Clay was one of five children of Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr and his wife Odessa O’Grady. Clay Sr was named for the 19thC abolitionist of the same name and passed the name on to his own son. Clay Sr was the descendant of slaves, Odessa however was the grand-daughter of a white Irish immigrant through her paternal line and the great-grand-daughter of a white man and a slave on her maternal side. Cassius would later adopt the name Muhammed Ali, upon his conversion to Islam, and thereafter refusing to answer to what he called his “slave-name”, despite its link with abolition, rather than slavery.
At the age of twelve, a police officer came across Clay, who was fuming as a thief had taken his bicycle. He told the officer, Joe E Martin, that he was going to “whup” the thief; Martin, also a boxing coach, told the young Cassius that he should learn to box first. Martin went on to train Clay, as well as a number of other high profile boxers, including his own son Joe E Martin Jr who each held the Amateur Golden Gloves title for various weights and states. Clay’s amateur career was later taken over by Chuck Bodak.
As an up and coming star in the ring, Clay was known for his speed first and foremost. Later coining the phrase “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”, Ali as he was now known, perfected many of the techniques he was later known for, including the ability to stay out of reach of an incoming punch, and hit back whilst in motion; Ali was famous for being able to land several return punches, none of which seemed especially hard but would quickly catch up on his opponent, leaving them blurry and fazed. He also used the “rope a dope” method to stunning effect, placing himself laid on the ropes to have a rest, while he took enough hits from his opponent to physically wear them out before launching himself back into the fight.
In all through his professional career he won a total of 56 fights from 61 including 37 knockouts, against such names in the boxing world as Sonny Liston, Joe Bugner, Henry Cooper, Oscar Bonavena, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Alfredo Evangelista and Leon Spinks. Following the famous title fight bout with Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” in October 1974, the latter would later admit that Ali had “Out-thought and out-fought him”. His career was not without controversy however, he was also famed for trash-talk in the lead up to bouts, a trick he learned from professional wrestler “Gorgeous” George Wagner, to throw his opponents into psychological imbalance. He would keep up his insults
during his bouts, leading to his competition getting wound up and as a consequence, sloppy and uncoordinated. However, in one bout, Joe Frazier retorted by breaking Ali’s jaw.
After signing for the draft in 1962 on his 18th birthday, Ali was classed as 1-A on the classification for service, meaning he was declared fit for general service. However, two years later, he was re-classified as 1-Y, meaning to be called up in times of national emergency only, due to the discovery of his IQ being only 78, placing him on the 16th percentile in a time when enlistment required a minimum threshold of 30th percentile. As Ali once stated ‘I said I was the greatest, not the smartest’. In early 1966, the armed forces reclassified again, after lowering the threshold to the 15th percentile, meaning Ali was once again 1-A, the situation in Vietnam was just starting to reach fever pitch.
In 1967, Ali was called up for enlistment; after publicly declaring himself a conscientious objector, citing his religious beliefs – that the war in Vietnam went against the teachings of the Qu’ran, where he was not permitted to take part in any Christian or non-believers war, Ali attended his induction and refused three times to step forward when his name was called. He was warned that his action consisted a felony crime, punishable with a five-year prison term and a fine of $10, 000. Ali refused to step forward a fourth time leading to his arrest. The same day, he was stripped of all his boxing titles and his licence to box firstly by the New York State Athletics Commission, closely followed by the others. He would not be able to fight for three years.
Despite being found guilty of draft-dodging, Ali would stand by his choice, citing that “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” and more famously “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me Nigger.” His stance inspired many to question America’s involvement in Vietnam as time passed, most notably Martin Luther King Jr, who until Ali’s charge had been reluctant to challenge the war for fear of losing the support of the Johnson administration for his civil rights movement.
Ali’s suspension arguably cost him the best years of his career. By the time his appeal came to court and was upheld, the judges voting unanimously 8-0 (Justice Thurgood Marshall abstaining) to overturn his conviction on the grounds that since the Appeal Board gave no reason for the denial of a conscientious objector exemption to Ali, and that it was therefore impossible to determine which of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status offered in the Justice Department’s brief that the Appeals Board relied on, Ali’s conviction must be reversed. Ali was given back his licence to box. His titles, he would have to win again.
Ali and his brother Rahman had converted to the Nation of Islam, in the early 60s, although as a result of his boxing career, Ali was initially rejected. His conversion was pushed by Malcolm X, who became his spiritual mentor. Malcolm X split with the Nation of Islam just 2 weeks after Ali’s conversion became public in 1964, at which point Ali changed his name. Ali would later say the end of his friendship with Malcolm was one of the biggest regrets in his life. Malcolm had slowly grown away from the doctrine of the NOI despite being one of their most prominent leaders for several years. His disillusionment was propelled by their stance on segregation between whites and blacks, claiming black supremacy. The NOI were often cited for their racist agenda opposing integration, even by African-American communities.
Despite his heritage as a descendent of slaves on his father’s side, and white and inter-racial marriage on his mother’s, Ali would argue that “No intelligent black man or black woman in his or her right black mind wants white boys and white girls coming to their homes to marry their black sons and daughters.” And that white man was “the devil” and that white people were not “righteous”. Malcolm X transferred to the more traditional Sunni branch of Islam, still advocating for black rights but completely changing his stance on integration. He was assassinated the following year by three members of the Nation of Islam. Muhammed Ali made his own transition to Sunni in 1975, ten years after the death of his former friend. 30 Years later, Ali would embrace the spiritual practices of Sufis.
In 1979, Ali announced his retirement, however shortly afterwards changed his mind, possibly for financial reasons and the desire to win his fourth WBC Heavyweight belt – something which no boxer had managed before in his weight class. Challenging holder Larry Holmes, Ali was forced to undergo a physical examination to pass him fit to fight, following disturbing evidence of vocal stutters and hand tremors. In an effort to avoid this, Ali checked into the Mayo clinic who passed him as fit. The Nevada Athletic Commission accepted the clearance; The fight was to go ahead. Larry Holmes was extremely reluctant, knowing that Ali had nothing left, all too obvious from his most recent bouts which had been badly fought. Ali was ill-prepared and no longer able to keep up the pace and stamina of his youth.
The fight took place in October 1980, and Sylvester Stallone – who had based his Rocky films on one of Ali’s earlier bouts against Chuck Wepner ‘The Bayonne Bleeder’ after Wepner put him down in the ninth round; Ali later claimed he tripped over Wepner’s foot (remember that scene?) – was ringside. The actor later stated ‘it was like watching an autopsy on a man who is still alive’. Ali’s coach, Angelo Dundee stopped the fight in the eleventh round, the only time in his career Ali lost by a knockout. It was later claimed that the Holmes fight was a major cause of Ali’s Parkinson’s disease, diagnosed three years later, however the evidence suggests he was already demonstrating symptoms prior to the fight. Ali had one more bout in 1981, against Trevor Berbick, losing based on a ten round decision. His career as the world’s greatest heavyweight boxer was over.
Since then Ali has worked as a UN ambassador, visiting high profile conflict zones including Iraq in 1991 to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of American Prisoners, and to Afghanistan in 2002 as a special messenger of peace on a goodwill mission in Kabul. He has been awarded commendations, including both the President’s Medal of Freedom and the Presidents Citizen’s Medal, and appeared on This Is Your Life. He has the only vertically mounted star on the Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard after asking that his name not be walked on. He was awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Century, and is inducted in the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Twice Ali has taken part in Olympic opening ceremonies, once lighting the torch, and on a later occasion being too weak to lift the flag, he was helped to his feet to stand by it. Ali was given the first Honorary Freeman of Ennis title in 2009, during a visit to see the birthplace of his great grandfather Abe Grady, who emigrated from County Clare to Kentucky in the 1860s.
A film ‘Ali’ was made about the Boxer’s life, released in 2001. Despite turning down the role more than once, Will Smith eventually agreed to play the lead role, after Muhammed asked him personally, stating that he was almost as pretty as himself.
In his private life, Ali has been married four times, producing five daughters, Maryum, twins Jamilla and Rasheda, (from his second marriage) Hana and Laila (from his third) and a son Muhammed Jr (also from his second marriage), as well as a second son, Asaad Amin, whom he adopted, at aged 5 months with his present (fourth) wife Lonnie. Ali also has two daughters, Miya and Khaliah from other relationships. Laila, despite opposition from her father, followed in Ali’s footsteps becoming a boxer in 1999 and is currently undefeated in the Super Middleweight category as of 2014, with 24 wins, no losses, no draws.
In February 2013, Ali’s brother Rahman claimed in the Washington Times that Muhammed was in a critical decline and could no longer speak, claiming the champion could be dead within days. This claim was refuted by Ali’s daughter who stated she had not noticed any speech difficulties when she telephoned her father that morning. In late 2014, Ali suffered a bout of pneumonia, for which he was treated. A year later he was hospitalized after being found unresponsive in a hotel; following treatment for a urinary tract infection, he was discharged.
On June 2nd, 2016 Ali was admitted to hospital with a respiratory problem. Reports in the press and media stated that he was placed on life-support; as his condition remained critical, his family gathered at his bedside. He died the following night of 3rd June, aged 74 years old.