Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, Muhammad Ali became an Olympic gold medalist in 1960 and the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. Following his suspension for denying military service, Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title two more times during the 1970s, winning legendary bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman along the way. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1984, Ali dedicated much of his time to philanthropy, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. He died on June 3, 2016, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Boxer, philanthropist, and social activist Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali showed at an early age that he wasn’t afraid of any bout—inside or outside of the ring. Growing up in the ghettoized South, he experienced racial bias and discrimination firsthand. At the age of 12, Ali learned his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. His bike was stolen, and Ali told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief. “Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people,” Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym. Ali started working with Martin to learn how to spar, and soon began his boxing career. In his first amateur bout in 1954, he won the fight by split decision. Ali went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union’s national title for the light heavyweight division.
In 1960, Ali won a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team, and traveled to Rome, Italy, to compete. At 6′ 3″, Ali was a striking figure in the ring, but he also became recognized for his lightning speed and fancy footwork. After winning his first three bouts, Ali defeated Zbigniew Pietrzkowski from Poland to win the light heavyweight gold medal. After his Olympic victory, Ali was foreshadowed as an American hero. He soon turned professional with the backing of the Louisville Sponsoring Group and continued devastating all opponents in the ring. Ali took out British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in 1963 and then knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Often referring to himself as “the greatest,” Ali was not afraid to sing his own praises. He was known for swaggering about his skills before a fight and for his colorful metaphors and phrases. In one of his more famously quoted descriptions, Ali told reporters that he could “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” in the boxing ring.
Conversion to Islam and Suspension
This bold public persona contradicted what was happening in Ali’s personal life, however. He was doing some spiritual searching and decided to join the black Muslim group the Nation of Islam in 1964. At first, he called himself “Cassius X” before settling on the name Muhammad Ali. The boxer eventually converted to orthodox Islam during the 1970s. However, Ali did not legally change his name. He said that he did not need the approval of any white man (judge) to change his name. Ali later started a different kind of fight with his outspoken views against the Vietnam War. Drafted into the military in April 1967, he refused to serve on the grounds that he was a practicing Muslim minister with religious beliefs that prevented him from fighting. He said that he simply did not wish to shoot someone who had done nothing to his family or friends. He was arrested for committing a crime and almost immediately stripped of his world title and boxing license.
The U.S. Department of Justice pursued a legal case against Ali, denying his claim for conscientious objector status. He was found guilty of irreverent Selective Service laws and sentenced to five years in prison in June 1967, but remained free while appealing his conviction. Unable to compete professionally in the meantime, Ali missed more than three prime years of his athletic career. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction in June 1971.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, Ali returned to the ring in 1970 with a win over Jerry Quarry. The following year, Ali took on Joe Frazier in what has been called the “Fight of the Century.” Frazier and Ali went toe-to-toe for 14 rounds before Frazier dropped Ali with a malicious left hook in the 15th. Ali recovered quickly, but the judges awarded the decision to Frazier, handing Ali his first professional loss after 31 wins. Ali soon suffered a second loss, to Ken Norton, but he beat Frazier in a 1974 rematch.
Another legendary Ali fight, against undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman, took place in 1974. Billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle,” the bout was organized by promoter Don King and held in Kinshasa, Zaire. For the first time, Ali was seen as the underdog to the younger, massive Foreman, but he silenced his critics with a masterful performance. He lured Foreman into throwing wild punches with his “ropea- dope” technique, before stunning his opponent with an eighth-round knockout to reclaim the heavyweight title.
Ali and Frazier locked horns for their grudge match in Quezon City, Philippines, in 1975. Dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila,” the bout nearly went the distance, with both men delivering and absorbing remarkable punishment.
However, Frazier’s trainer threw in the towel after the 14th round, giving the hard-fought victory to Ali. Ali later said it was the closest he has been to death, referring to the blows he received. After losing his title to Leon Spinks in February 1978, Ali defeated him in a September rematch, becoming the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times.
Following a brief retirement, he returned to the ring to face Larry Holmes in 1980 but was overmatched against the younger champion. Following one final loss in 1981, to Trevor Berbick, the boxing great retired from the sport.
Philanthropy and Diagnosis of Parkinson’s
After his retirement, Ali dedicated much his time to philanthropy. He announced that he had Parkinson’s disease in 1984, a degenerative neurological condition, and was involved in raising funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
Over the years, Ali also supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among other organizations. In 1996, he lit the Olympic cauldron at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, an emotional moment in sports history.
Ali traveled to numerous countries, including Mexico and Morocco, to help out those in need. In 1998, he was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace because of his work in developing nations.
In 1985, Ali traveled to Lebanon in an attempt to free 40 American hostages. His mission was considered a failure, although later an Islamic Jihad told Western news outlets that American hostage Jeremy Levin, who reportedly escaped, was released “after the intervention and insistence of a noted American Islamic personality.” That “may have been me,” Ali said.
In August 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, Saddam took thousands of foreigners hostage. After the United Nations passed a resolution asking that Iraq pulls out of Kuwait, Saddam still had 15 American men, using them as human shields by seizing them in buildings America was likely to bomb.
Some of the men had worked at the GM plant in Baghdad. All of them were civilians.
As recounted in the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary “Ali: The Mission,” America’s most famous Muslim went to Iraq. He landed on Nov. 23, 1990, Day 113 of the predicament.
“It was well-announced to the Iraqis that Muhammad Ali, world champion, worldrenowned hero, is now in Baghdad,” said Vernon Nored, who was Ali’s link from the US Embassy.
Everywhere he went, Ali was received by his fans. “The Iraqis would ask him for autographs, want to stand and talk to him . . . Ali never, ever turned anybody down.”
The hostages had no idea Ali was there — they only knew a war was forthcoming. As Saddam kept Ali waiting for days, the fighter took to the streets, visiting children in schools and praying in mosques.
“We hope and pray there is not a war,” he told the press, which followed him everywhere. “And with the little authority from the fame that I have, I’ll show the real side of Iraq.”
Ali had been in Baghdad for one week, with no word from Saddam, when the improbable happened: Ali ran out of his Parkinson’s medication.
“He could barely get out of bed,” Nored told “30 for 30.” “He couldn’t stand up. And he couldn’t talk because his voice wouldn’t go above a whisper.”
Ali fought through it, appearing suited and seated at yet another press conference, where a helper explained that Ali wouldn’t be speaking. Nored, meanwhile, tracked down emergency meds at the Irish Hospital in Baghdad.
The following day, Ali was told Saddam would meet with him. The Bush White House insisted this was all favorable information for the Iraqis, and rumors circulated that Ali and other would-be do-gooders were in it for a Nobel Prize. “Loose-cannon diplomacy” was the term.
Ali’s meeting with Saddam on Nov. 29, 1990, was open to the media. Ali sat tolerantly while Saddam praised himself for treating the hostages so well. Once he sensed an opening, Ali promised Saddam that he’d bring America “an honest account” of Iraq. “I’m not going to let Muhammad Ali return to the US,” Saddam replied, “without having a number of the American citizens accompanying him.”
Ali got all 15. Once released, the men were filmed going into Ali’s modest hotel room, where a fatigued Ali sat on the foot of his bed. One by one, the former hostages thanked him. A thin older man named George Charchalis lightly touched Ali’s shoulder and said, “He’s our guy.”
On Dec. 2, 1990, Ali and the hostages flew out of Baghdad, headed for JFK. The men remained flabbergasted. “You know, I thanked him,” said former hostage Bobby Anderson. “And he said, ‘Go home,’ be with my family . . . what a great guy.” “I was just lucky enough, for some reason, to be on Muhammad Ali’s list,” said Harry Brill-Edwards. “He’s a marvelous individual,” said Sergio Coletta. “Marvelous man.”
Ali was humbled. “They don’t owe me nothin’,” he said in Baghdad. “They don’t owe me nothin’.” Just weeks later, on Jan. 6, 1991, the United States began bombing Iraq. Ali himself was still bombed by criticism that his mission was one of self-glory that he was just in search of more publicity.
“I do need publicity, but not for what I do for good! I need publicity for my book, I need publicity for my fights, I need publicity for my movie — but not for helping people,” he said. “Then it’s no longer sincere.”
On another occasion, he showed the world exactly what a hero Muhammad Ali was in 1981 when he saved a suicidal man who was threatening to jump from a Los Angeles building.
The day Ali saved a disturbed man threatening to jump from the ninth floor of a Los Angeles building was a story that was largely forgotten for many years.
On Jan. 19, 1981, police had so far been futile in negotiating with a suicidal man about to jump from a building. That news spurred the boxer (clad in a suit and tie) to rush to the scene from his home nearby. Ali offered to talk to the man and ultimately saved his life.
“I’m your brother, I want to help you,” a news report on the incident quoted Ali saying to the man while standing at a neighboring window.
News reports from the time claim the man had yelled, “I’m no good! I’m going to jump. The Viet Cong are coming at me!” Police, a psychologist, and a minister had previously had no success in talking the man down from the ledge.
Ali was resolute to do what he could to help, however, and after a little convincing managed to convince the man to open the door to the fire escape he was standing on so the boxer could speak with him face-to-face. It was a tense time for onlookers waiting down below, according to the CBS News report on the incident.
But within 20 minutes, the world champion boxer accomplished to do what police had not: bring the man to safety. Pictures from the time show the man climbed down from the ledge and into Ali’s arms. But Ali’s compassion toward the suicidal man didn’t stop when he was brought down from the ledge. Ali reportedly vowed to visit the man in the veteran’s hospital he was taken to for psychiatric treatment following the incident. It was an astonishing act from an extraordinary man.
In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. He also opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, that same year.
“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given,” he said. “Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another.”
Despite the development of Parkinson’s and the onset of spinal stenosis, Ali remained active in public life. He was on hand to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American president in January 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn into office. Soon after the inauguration, Ali received the President’s Award from the NAACP for his public service efforts.
Death and Legacy
Things began taking a turn for the worse in the last few years. In early 2015, Ali was hospitalized for a severe urinary tract infection after having battled pneumonia.
He has hospitalized again in early June 2016 for what was reportedly a respiratory issue. The celebrated athlete passed away on the evening of June 3, 2016, at a Phoenix, Arizona facility.
Ali was survived by his fourth wife, Yolanda (“Lonnie”), whom he had been married to since 1986. The couple had one son, Asaad, and Ali had several children from previous relationships, including daughter Laila Ali, who followed in his footsteps by becoming a champion boxer.
Years before his passing, Ali had planned his own memorial services, saying he wanted to be “inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that want to pay their respects to me,” according to a family spokesman.
The three-day event, which took place in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, included an “I Am Ali” festival of public arts, entertainment and educational offerings sponsored by the city, an Islamic prayer program and a memorial service.
Prior to the memorial service, a funeral motorcade traveled 20 miles through Louisville, past Ali’s childhood home, his high school, the first boxing gym where he trained and along Muhammad Ali Boulevard as tens of thousands of fans tossed flowers on his hearse and applauded his name.
The champ’s memorial service was held at the KFC Yum Center arena with close to 20,000 people in attendance. Speakers included religious leaders from various faiths, Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X’s eldest daughter, broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Ali’s daughters Maryum and Rasheda and his widow Lonnie.
“Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world,” Lonnie said. “In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up during segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence.”
Former President Clinton spoke about how Ali found self-empowerment: “I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, the expectations of others, positive, negative or otherwise would strip from him the power to write his own story. ”
Crystal, who was a struggling comedian when he became friends with Ali, said of the boxing legend: “Ultimately, he became a silent messenger for peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.” “You have inspired us and the world to be the best version of ourselves,’ Rasheda Ali spoke to her father. ‘May you live in the paradise free from suffering. You shook up the world in life now you’re shaking up the world in death. Now you are free to be with your creator. We love you so much, Daddy. Until we meet again, fly butterfly, fly.”
Pallbearers included actor Will Smith, who played the champ in the biopic Ali (2001), and former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Ali was buried at the Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville. Universally regarded as one of the greatest boxers in history, Ali’s stature as a legend continues to grow even after his death.
He is celebrated not only for his extraordinary athletic skills but for his willingness to speak his mind and his courage to express his feelings for what he believes to be right.