African Americans - Muhammad Ali aka Cassius Clay, Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World
Muhammad Ali at a news conference that he conducts from inside the ring in Atlanta, Ga., Oct. 24, 1970
"I Am The Greatest"
(b. January 17, 1942, Louisville, Ky.), African American heavyweight prizefighter, converted to Islam, antiwar protester, and international ambassador of goodwill.
As the dominant heavyweight boxer of the 1960s and 1970s, Muhammad Ali won an Olympic gold medal, captured the professional world heavyweight championship on three separate occasions, and successfully defended his title 19 times. Ali's extroverted, colorful style, both in and out of the ring, heralded a new mode of media-conscious athletic celebrity. Through his bold assertions of black pride, his conversion to the Muslim faith, and his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War, Ali became a highly controversial
symbol of the turbulent 1960s.
Ali's 1981 retirement from boxing did not diminish his status in international public culture. Despite suffering from Parkinson's disease, he remained on the world stage as an adherent of the Nation of Islam, an
advocate of children and war victims, and a proponent of international understanding. Ali has been described as "the most recognizable human being on earth."
The Life and Times of Muhammad Ali in Pictures
Muhammad Ali awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal
The Louisville Years
Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, the son of Marcellus Clay, a sign painter, and Odessa (Grady) Clay, a domestic worker. He was named for white Kentucky abolitionist Cassius M. Clay. Ali began boxing at the age of 12 under the tutelage of white Louisville policeman Joe Martin. Enraged one
day to discover his bicycle missing, Ali resolved to "whup whoever stole it." Martin, wary of the problem of undisciplined adolescent belligerence in Ali's tough neighborhood, convinced the young Ali that such verbal boasts were best complemented by a mastery of the principles of boxing.
An indifferent student who graduated 376th in his high school class of 391, Ali passionately devoted himself to amateur boxing, appearing in 108 bouts between 1955 and 1960. He won six Kentucky Golden Glove titles, two National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, two National Golden Glove crowns, and the Gold Medal in the light heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy.
Returning triumphantly from Rome to Louisville, Ali was bitterly disappointed at not being welcomed as an American hero in his segregated hometown. According to one story, after being refused service at a
Louisville diner while wearing the Olympic Medal around his neck, Ali threw it into the Ohio River.
Professional Boxing Career
Ali's professional debut as a heavyweight came in October 1960 with a six-round decision over Tunny Hunsaker. Clay won his next 18 fights, 15 by knockouts. On February 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, Florida, Clay waged his first challenge for the heavyweight championship in a match against Sonny Liston. Though Liston was thought by many boxing experts to be invincible, the brash 22-year old Clay spent the weeks leading up to the fight entertaining reporters and fans with colorfully-worded promises of his impending victory. In one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history, Clay delivered on his promise, knocking Liston out in the seventh round.
Shortly after the fight, Cassius Clay startled the sports world by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Ali defended his heavyweight crown in nine matches over the next two years. His title was revoked in 1967 when, citing his Islamic faith, he refused induction into the United States military and was sentenced to a five-year prison term.