Muhammad Ali was an American professional boxer, activist, poet, and philanthropist who was nicknamed ‘the Greatest’ and is widely regarded as one of the most important and revered people of the 20th century. He was frequently ranked as the best heavyweight boxer of all time. A prominent icon of the 1960s Counterculture movement, he was already a rising star in boxing having won an Olympic gold medal and the world heavyweight championship, when he was drafted into the US military in 1967 to participate in the Vietnam War which was then raging.
Ali, who was born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. but had later converted to Islam, refused to join citing his religious beliefs as well as his not agreeing with the rationale of the war. Because of his conscientious objection, he was found guilty of draft evasion, stripped of his boxing titles, and sentenced to 5 years in prison. Although he was not jailed and appealed his conviction in the US Supreme Court which ruled in his favor in 1971, Ali lost 3 years of a period of peak performance as an athlete. In 1970, Ali returned to the ring and continued his boxing career. Throughout his life, he was an activist promoting the empowerment of African-Americans. In the 1970s, Ali won many
famous title fights including, ‘The Rumble in the Jungle, held in Kinshasa, Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’, held in Manilla, The Philippines. Ali retired from Boxing in 1981 and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Syndrome in 1984. Though retired from boxing, he was actively involved in humanitarian causes around the world. After suffering from the disease for three decades, Ali died in 2016 leaving behind a rich legacy of not only boxing but also activism, singing, acting, and philanthropy.
Many facts of Muhammad Ali’s life are not known to the general public even though he has been one of the most famous sporting legends in the world in the last century. The following are 7 such facts:
- Ali was originally named in honor of a white abolitionist
Ali, like his father, was named for Cassius Marcellus Clay, a 19th-century farmer and anti-slavery campaigner who freed the 40 slaves that had been passed on to him by his father. Clay was a second cousin of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, he edited an anti-slavery newspaper, led soldiers in the Mexican-American War, and served as Ambassador to Russia under President Abraham Lincoln. Clay faced a lot of threats to his life because of his abolitionist stance which was in defiance of the standard conventions followed by Whites in the American South at the time. Clay was beaten, knifed, and shot at by political opponents but lived to the age of 92.
Muhammad Ali’s father was also named after the abolitionist and he gave the same name to his son. In the 1960s, when Cassius Clay, Jr. converted to Islam, he was renamed, Muhammad Ali. Ali said at the time that he considered ‘Cassius Clay’ to be his ‘slave name’ and didn’t want to continue with it. He instead wanted to honor his identity as a Black American and as a Muslim.
2. Ali’s boxing career started as a result of the theft of his bicycle
Ali was 12 years old when his red-and-white Schwinn bicycle which he loved a lot was stolen in October 1954. Ali reported the theft to police officer Joe Martin in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He vowed to beat up the culprit when he found him. Martin was also a boxing coach and suggested that the young boy first learn the art of fighting. He took Clay under his wing and became his first coach and trainer. Six weeks later, Clay won his first bout of boxing. Thus began his boxing career.
3. Before he became known as Muhammad Ali, he changed his name to Cassius X
After defeating Sonny Liston, the new heavyweight champion validated reports that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam movement. With Malcolm X at his side, Clay told the correspondents that he had given up his surname, which he referred to as his “slave name”, and would be temporarily known as “Cassius X” until Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam gave him a holy name. That name, Muhammad Ali, was given to him on March 6, 1964. From then on, he was known as Muhammad Ali for the rest of his life.
- Ali was prohibited from boxing for three years
As the Vietnam War erupted in the 1960s and the US involvement in it grew, Ali in 1967 was marked for drafting into the military but he refused to serve for religious reasons. He also said he had no issues with the Viet Cong fighters in Vietnam. It was the White people in the US who had discriminated against him on account of his race, he said. Ali was arrested, and the New York State Athletic Commission immediately suspended his boxing license and deprived him of his title. Ali was convicted of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison, and fined $10,000, although he remained free while appealing against the conviction. In 1970 his boxing license was restored by the New York State Supreme Court. Ali returned to the ring by defeating Jerry Quarry in October 1970. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction unanimously.
- Ali had Irish roots
Ali’s great-grandfather Abe Grady emigrated to the United States from Ennis, County Clare in Ireland, and settled in the state of Kentucky in the 1860s. He married a freed slave. Among their grandchildren was Odessa Lee Grady Clay, who was Ali’s mother. In 2009, Ali visited his great-grandfather’s hometown, Ennis in Ireland, and met members of his extended family.
- Ali fought one of his most famous bouts at 4 AM in the morning
In 1974, Ali who was then 32, earned a title shot against undefeated champion George Foreman, who was 25. Zaire (today, the Democratic Republic of the Congo)’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko who wanted to create positive publicity in favor of his country paid both of them $5 million to stage the fight in the capital city of Zaire, Kinshasa. Because of the time difference between Zaire and the US and to enable audiences in America to watch the fight live in real-time, the bout began during the early morning hours before dawn in Africa. The match dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle,” saw Ali win in an eight-round knockout to regain the heavyweight title that had been taken away from him seven years ago.
- Ali’s Olympic gold medal may be at the bottom of a river
After graduating high school, Ali, then 18 years old, won the light heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. Ali wrote in his autobiography in 1975 that after returning to Louisville, Kentucky, he threw his gold medal off a bridge and into the Ohio River as he wanted to protest the racism that he was still subjected to in his hometown. However, the account was disputed, and it was believed that Ali had instead lost the medal. During the 1996 Summer Olympics, at which he lit the Olympic Flame in the Opening Ceremonies, Ali received a replacement gold medal.