Born on this day: Muhammad Ali
Poet, warrior, Olympian, champion, controversial figure, beloved character, and a towering figure of his time and beyond. The one and only Muhammad Ali was born on a day like today, 81 years ago.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. was born in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. After having his bicycle stolen by another kid he decided to take up boxing at age 12. Only six years later he was taking the podium in Rome as the winner of the Olympic gold medal in the light heavyweight division, and a legend was born.
After a meteoric career as a professional, he finally had his big chance against the most fearsome heavyweight on the planet. In a fight in which he was a heavy underdog, Clay defeated Sonny Liston on February 25, 1964. He was just 22 years old.
It was around that time that he became a Muslim under the Nation of Islam banner, and became known as Muhammad Ali. His first few defenses of his heavyweight title were a dazzling display of unorthodox talent, a unique boxing style in the ring and a controversial style outside of it.
Following the principles that he had embraced as a Muslim, Ali refused to be drafted into the military in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War, resulting in a guilty verdict for draft evasion that led to the suspension of his license and loss of his boxing titles.
Returning to action after the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn his conviction in 1971, Ali embarked in a campaign to reclaim his championship, culminating in a loss to Joe Frazier in what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” Undeterred, Ali persevered and continued facing the best opponents available in one of boxing’s greatest heavyweight eras, and in 1974 he was finally able to lure newly crowned champion George Foreman into the ring for another mega-bout.
In what would become one of boxing’s most extraordinary fights of all time, Ali stopped Foreman in eight rounds in the “Rumble in the Jungle” in Kinshasa, Zaire, finally regaining his championship.
After a few defenses, a third encounter with Frazier in Manila ended up with Ali winning the rubber match in their bitter rivalry, in a bout that became known as the “Thrilla in Manila” and which was fought under a sweltering heat, bringing both men to the brink of exhaustion.
Defending his titles against all comers, Ali lost and regained his belt against Leon Spinks towards the very end of his career. In his next fight he faced one of his former sparring partners in Larry Holmes, who forced him to quit in the tenth round in what became the only stoppage loss in Ali’s career.
One fight later, Ali retired for good with a record of 56-5 (37 knockouts) compiled against the very best names of his generation (arguably the best heavyweight generation of all time) including names such as Ernie Shavers, Ken Norton, Ron Lyle, Oscar Bonavena, George Chuvalo, Ernie Terrell, Floyd Patterson and many others.
After his retirement, and even before, there was nothing that Ali wouldn’t do in his search for public notoriety and the use of his fame in the defense of his own political and religious ideals. He was a singer, actor, spokesperson for different causes, and remained a controversial presence in the world for years to come.
Two years after his retirement, in 1984, he revealed to the world his diagnosis of Parkinson’s syndrome, but not even his crippling condition kept him from being under the spotlight. In 1996 he was in charge of igniting the Olympic flame in Atlanta, and the ovation that he drew from the audience reminded the world that he remained one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century.
His humanitarian endeavors, just as his athletic accomplishments, were too many to be named in just one article. He died in Scottsdale, Arizona, on June 2, 2016, leaving behind a legacy that can only be described with the very same words that he used to describe himself: The Greatest.
Diego M. Morilla has written for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.