Published on July 17, 2016
/ɑːˈliː/ (born Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.; January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American Olympic and professional boxer and activist. He is widely regarded as one of the most significant and celebrated sports figures of the 20th century. From early in his career, Ali was known as an inspiring, controversial and polarizing figure both inside and outside the ring.
Cassius Clay was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, and began training as an amateur boxer when he was 12 years old. At 18, he won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, and converted to Islam shortly afterwards. At 22, he won the WBA and WBC heavyweight titles from Sonny Liston in an upset in 1964. Clay then changed his legal name from Cassius Clay, which he called his “slave name”, to Muhammad Ali, and gave a message of racial pride for African Americans and resistance to white domination during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
In 1966, two years after winning the heavyweight title, Ali further antagonized the white establishment in the U.S. by refusing to be conscripted into the U.S. military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to American involvement in the Vietnam War. He was eventually arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges and stripped of his boxing titles. He successfully appealed in the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years—losing a period of peak performance as an athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation.
Ali is regarded as one of the leading heavyweight boxers of the 20th century. He remains the only three-time lineal heavyweight champion; he won the title in 1964, 1974, and 1978. Between February 25, 1964, and September 19, 1964, Ali reigned as the undisputed heavyweight champion. He is the only boxer to be named The Ring magazine Fighter of the Year five times. He was ranked as the greatest athlete of the 20th century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC. ESPN SportsCentury ranked him the 3rd greatest athlete of the 20th century. Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he was involved in several historic boxing matches. Notable among these were the first Liston fight; the “Fight of the Century”, “Super Fight II” and the “Thrilla in Manila” versus his rival Joe Frazier; and “The Rumble in the Jungle” versus George Foreman.
At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in—and indeed craved—the spotlight, where he was often provocative and outlandish. He was known for trash talking, and often freestyled with rhyme schemes and spoken word poetry, both for his trash talking in boxing and as political poetry for his activism, anticipating elements of rap and hip hop music. As a musician, Ali recorded two spoken word albums and a rhythm and blues song, and received two Grammy Award nominations. As an actor, he performed in several films and a Broadway musical. Ali wrote two autobiographies, one during and one after his boxing career.
As a Muslim, Ali was initially affiliated with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam (NOI) and advocated their black separatist ideology. He later disavowed the NOI, adhering to Sunni Islam and supporting racial integration, like his former mentor Malcolm X. After retiring from boxing in 1981, Ali devoted his life to religious and charitable work. In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome, which his doctors attributed to boxing-related brain injuries. As the condition worsened, Ali made limited public appearances and was cared for by his family until his death on June 3, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona.