After defeating Sonny Liston in 1964, an ecstatic Muhammad Ali declared: “I shook up the world.”
Thrusting his arms into the air, he treated the victory as if it had been a knockout. Never mind that Liston denied him that honor by refusing to step into the ring for a seventh round. Ali’s win gave America a first glimpse of the young man who for the next 50 years would never stop shaking up the world.
Ali, the brash and ebullient heavyweight boxer whose brilliance in the ring and bravado outside it made his face one of the most recognizable in the world died Friday night. He was 74. Ali had suffered from Parkinson’s syndrome for many years.
If Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson opened the door for black athletes, Ali stormed through, making sure it would never close again. His celebrity transcended race and sports, for as dexterous as he was in the ring, he was equally skilled at challenging the status quo. Guided by his religion, bolstered by his popularity, he tempered his righteousness with an ever-quotable wit and a prevailing sense of cool.
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Grandson of a slave, he was feted by presidents and kings. He defeated the Justice Department in the Supreme Court, worked as a humanitarian and an ambassador and became a hero to those who watched him light the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, his body shaking with the emotion of the moment and the symptoms of the disease that had stolen his strength.
Since retiring from the ring in 1981, he lived with the tremors, slowness in gait and slurring of speech of Parkinson’s syndrome, which doctors attributed to the poundings he endured in the late stages of his career when he could no longer feint and dance his way out of harm’s way.
Yet even as he grew weaker he maintained a public profile. One of his last appearances came during the opening ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
“Ali was the great artist of the ring – in his prime an extraordinary combination of skill, swiftness, ingenuity and cunning as well as a sardonic playfulness and audacity not seen in boxing since Jack Johnson,” boxing aficionado and novelist Joyce Carol Oates told the Los Angeles Times in 2013.
Inside the ring, Ali was a fighter who early in his career was known as Cassius Clay, and even though he held his hands too low and his punches were often glancing, he bettered opponents with his tenacity and versatility. In his long career, he lost only five professional fights, and two of those were after he came out of retirement.
Outside the ring, he was a rebel who never backed down from his principles.
The day after he defeated Liston, he announced that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and a few weeks later he adopted a Muslim name.
“Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he said. “I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means ‘beloved of God’ – and I insist people use it when people speak to me and of me.”
The day he was classified as eligible for the Vietnam draft in 1966, he voiced his opposition to the war.
“I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” he famously told the gathered reporters.
Brash, forthright and blunt, Ali never once doubted his worth and often expressed it with humor and style. Describing his steps in the ring, he delighted the media with doggerel. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he said, borrowing lines coined by one of his trainers. “Your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.”
He understood the value of showmanship and humor. A few days before his bout with Liston, the Beatles – visiting Miami for a taping of “The Ed Sullivan Show” – stopped by the training gym. Photographers captured Ali tapping George Harrison with a punch that connected, domino-style, with the other three band members.
“He became so famous that in his travels around the world Ali could gaze out of airplane windows – down at Lagos and L.A., down at Paris and Madras – and be assured that almost everyone alive knew who he was,” David Remnick wrote in “King of the World.”
Superlatives and hyperbole came to define him, and he was happy to let the claims stand unchallenged.
Muhammad Ali was born Jan. 17, 1942, in Louisville, Ky. He was named after his father, Cassius Clay, who in turn had been named after a 19th century white abolitionist.
Cassius Sr. was a sign painter and occasional muralist. Ali’s mother, Odessa Grady Clay, was a domestic and cook. Nicknamed GG by his mother, Ali was a child who made jokes and enjoyed being the center of attention. The family attended Mount Zion Baptist Church. When asked how he started boxing, Ali often told the story about the time his bike was stolen. He was 12 and had ridden to Louisville’s Columbia Auditorium, where popcorn and ice cream were being handed out.
Leaving the hall, he discovered his $60 red-and-white Schwinn missing. He reported the theft to an off-duty policeman who ran a boxing gym. Ali said he wanted to “whup whoever stole it.”
I started boxing because I thought this was the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country.
The policeman invited him to start coming to the gym. Ali impressed his trainer not just with his speed and strength but with his discipline: When hit hard, he neither panicked nor got angry.
When not at the gym, Ali traded punches with his brother Rudy and his friends behind Leonard Tucker’s grocery store. In the mornings, he jogged the streets of Louisville, wearing heavy steel-toed work boots.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South, Ali knew about the two Americas, the one for whites and the one for blacks. He was 13 when the mutilated body of a black boy, Emmett Till, was retrieved from a Mississippi river and an all-white jury acquitted the white killer.
The injustice affirmed the role that boxing would play in his life. “I started boxing because I thought this was the fastest way for a black person to make it in this country,” he said.
He honed his skills as an amateur and in 1960 won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the Rome Summer Olympics, a debut he almost missed because of his fear of airplanes (he bought a parachute for the trip).
After turning professional, Ali was backed by 11 Kentucky millionaires who offered him one of the most lucrative contracts in boxing history.
Ali never underestimated the power of self-promotion. During the 1963 newspaper strike in New York City, Ali took to the streets to promote a fight at Madison Square Garden, and that year he recorded a spoken-word album, “I Am the Greatest!”
Before the Liston bout in 1964, Ali had won 20 professional fights, but sportswriters doubted him. He was 22, a 7-to-1 underdog whom no one expected to last three minutes in the ring against the Big Bear.
When the bell rang, he went about “running and slipping,” as one reporter wrote, “like someone killing time in a pool hall.”
By the third round, he began to hit Liston with eye-blurring combinations that became his trademark.
After those seven rounds, the world was a different place for him.
On a trip to Africa later that year, he was greeted as an international star.
But Ali soon found himself defending his affiliation with the Nation of Islam, whose agenda moderate blacks believed was too extreme for the civil rights struggle. .
“The act of joining was not something many of us particularly liked,” civil rights leader Julian Bond told the writer Thomas Hauser. “But the notion he’d do it; that he’d jump out there, join this group that was so despised by mainstream America, and be proud of it, sent a little thrill through you.”
Refusing to fight
Ali’s popularity grew when he refused to be inducted into the Army to fight in Vietnam. He said he was exempt because he was a minister for the Nation of Islam, but he also used race to argue his point.
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-call Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs,” he told Sports Illustrated.
Sportswriters denounced him as a traitor, as did the Kentucky Legislature, and the FBI subjected him to the same surveillance as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
On June 20, 1967, Ali was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000. His boxing license was revoked, and he was stripped of his titles. As the case was appealed, he lectured on college campuses where he was greeted as a hero for being willing to sacrifice his income and stature in opposition to the war.
“I put him in the same category as Nelson Mandela, who stood up for a whole lot of folks by just staying where he was and saying what he believed in,” the late musician Gil Scott-Heron once said.
In 1970, the New York State Athletic Commission reinstated Ali’s license, and after a three-year hiatus he took on new fighters, most notably Joe Frazier in Madison Square Garden.
Frazier won by unanimous decision – Ali’s first loss as a professional.
Three months later, on June 28, 1971, Ali won a unanimous decision against the Justice Department in the U.S. Supreme Court. The charges of draft evasion were dropped, and for Ali, some of his best – and most brutal – fights lay ahead.
With no title to his name, Ali began a comeback that led to his 1974 match-up against heavyweight champion George Foreman.
Billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the fight was held in Zaire and promoted by Don King, who arranged for the Zairian president to put up $5 million for each fighter, at the time the biggest payday in sports. The fight drew 60,000 spectators and millions of pay-per-view customers.
During the match, Ali stunned fans by allowing Foreman to pummel him in what became known as his “rope-a-dope” tactic. Ali had realized that in the heat he would not be able to dance and bob as planned. He hoped instead that the hard-punching Foreman would wear himself out.
In the eighth round, Ali delivered a blow that sent Foreman spinning around and down onto the canvas.
Hanging up the gloves
A year later, Ali went up against Frazier for their final contest in what came to be known as the “Thrilla in Manila.”
More than a fight, the bout with Frazier was a grudge match, and not until the end of the 14th round – with the fight evenly scored at 63-63 – did Frazier’s trainer concede. Frazier’s left eye was closed, his right eye was closing and he was spitting blood. Still, his punches – 440 hits – took a toll on Ali.
“If dying is that hard,” Ali said, “I’d hate to see it coming.”
Three years later, Ali lost his crown to Leon Spinks, a fighter 12 years his junior. Seven months later, Ali won the rematch, earning the heavyweight title for the third time.
“I’d be a fool to fight again,” Ali said in 1979. But, still attracted to the money and glory of the ring, he agreed to two more bouts. He lost both, and in 1981 he hung up his gloves for good.