Biography for Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali is regarded as one of the world's greatest boxers. His mental agility equaled his physical skills: he was both beloved and chastised for the boastful verbal bantering that he brought to each professional fight and is remembered for his ability to "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Ali, who frequently described himself as "the Greatest," retired from boxing in December 1981. He has since been a strong presence in the U.S. Peace Corps and other community service-oriented groups, despite his increasingly poor health. Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clar Jr. on January 18, 1942 in Louisville, Kentucky to Cassius Marcellus Clay Sr., a sign painter, and Odetta Lee Grady, who occasionally worked as a housekeeper. Some accounts of the family's heritage contend that Ali's maternal grandfather was a white Irish American and that his paternal great-great-grandfather was a liberated slave who took the name of his former master, the diplomat and abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay. The Clays lived in what Ali called "semipoverty," and he and his younger brother often did odd jobs to help out. In about 1954, when Ali was 12, someone stole his bicycle and he reported the theft to a local police officer. The officer, Joe Elsby Martin, was supervising boxing classes at the local auditorium and invited Ali to try a few sessions. Soon, Ali was performing on a local weekly television show called "Tomorrow's Champions," and his immediate infatuation with boxing turned into a steady, burning ambition. His studies at Louisville's DuValle Junior High School and Central High School, never at the forefront of his mind, suffered greatly. He graduated, but at the bottom of his class, and to this day is a poor reader. The early days of Ali's boxing career were spent with Martin, but the young athlete soon added four hours of training a day with Fred Stoner, a local black trainer. Ali credits Stoner with helping him develop his distinctive style and building up stamina. It was at this point that Ali began to realize that many of the world's great boxers, while powerful, were so slow and cumbersome that he would be able to beat them easily just by staying light on his feet and dodging blows. This observation led him to adopt a strategy in which his main goals were to wear out his opponents and then go in and rain blows on them when they were too fatigued to defend themselves. Ali got to test his new strategy as an amateur fighter starting in the late 1950s, winning 100 of his 108 bouts. He also won six Kentucky Golden Gloves championships, two national Golden Gloves championships, and two national Amateur Athletic Union championships. His crowning achievement as an amateur athlete was to represent the United States in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, where he won the light-heavyweight gold medal. However, his pride and excitement were crushed when he returned to Louisville to celebrate and a restaurant refused him service because of his color. The scene escalated into a fight with a white motorcycle gang leader who tried to take his Olympic gold medal. Soon afterward, Ali, disgusted by the incident, threw his medal into the Ohio River. Ali had his first professional fight in late 1960 at age 18 under the sponsorship of 11 wealthy Louisville citizens, who brought in former boxing champion Archie Moore and later Angelo Dundee to train the rising star. Ali got off to a brilliant start as a professional, either knocking out his opponents or winning on decision. From 1960 to 1964, he worked on what would become his trademark ring banter, in which he came up with catchy little poems that insulted his opponents and predicted in which round they would lose. Ali's first fight with a well-known boxer came in 1962, when he faced Moore, his former coach, in the ring. Ali dispatched the more experienced boxer and went on to defeat several others before he finally got a chance to compete for the world heavyweight title against Sonny Liston in 1964. For this fight, Ali pulled out all the stops on his prefight antics, shocking reporters and the rest of the boxing world at the weigh-in by screaming "chump," "ugly old bear," and "monster" at the stony-faced slugger. When the men finally got in the ring, Ali started heckling Liston, all the while dancing around the older fighter and staying just out of reach of Liston's clumsy rushes. Ali battered the other fighter with hard, rapid punches for six rounds, and when Liston failed to answer the seventh-round bell, Ali knew he had become the new world heavyweight champion. He was not recognized by the World Boxing Association (WBA), however, until he beat WBA champion Ernie Terrell in 15 rounds on February 6, 1967. Shortly after winning the world championship in 1964, Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that was at that time widely regarded as a racist hate group. He changed his name (from Cassius Clay) to reflect his new beliefs. His boxing career continued at a furious pace, however, and he successfully defended his title against a long succession of challengers over the next three years. In 1967, as the United States was increasing its participation in the Vietnam War, the Selective Service Board classified him 1-A—eligible for service in the military. Citing religious reasons, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector and asked to be removed from the list, saying publicly, "I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong, anyway." When the government drafted him on April 18, 1967, Ali refused to be inducted. As a result, the WBA took away his world heavyweight champion title and his boxing license, and a Houston court found him guilty of violating the Selective Service Act, sentencing him to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine. He appealed and stayed out of jail. With his refusal to fight in Vietnam, Ali's international reputation soared. He became a folk hero and a symbol of the need for social change. Unable to box, Ali did college guest lectures, spoke before peace rallies and Muslim groups, and even starred in the Broadway musical Buck White in 1969. Ali was vindicated on June 20, 1970, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction. In October of that year, a federal court ruled that the WBA's revocation of his boxing license had been "arbitrary and unreasonable." Ali returned to the world of professional boxing in October 1970. Rebuilding his confidence and stamina after a 1971 loss to Joe Frazier, he beat Frazier in 1974 and prepared to face George Foreman, then world champion. The big fight against Foreman, which Ali dubbed "the rumble in the jungle," was the main event of a larger cultural mission that included the performances of many African-American musicians in Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo). Ali was extremely popular with the people of Zaire, who admired his stance against the Vietnam War. These fans were delighted with Ali's prefight tactics, baiting Forman with insults. During the match itself, on October 30, 1974, Ali demonstrated his classic "rope-a-dope" technique, letting Foreman throw big punches at his protected face and midsection until Foreman became exhausted. By the eighth round, Ali was able to knock Foreman out with a quick barrage of hits. The events in Zaire were made into a documentary film called When We Were Kings, which won an Academy Award in 1997. Having regained the world heavyweight title, Ali became the target of other fighters' ambitions. From 1974 to 1977, he fought numerous bouts, often knocking his opponents out. Among the fighters who lost to Ali during this period was Joe Frazier in a fight in the Philippines that Ali called "the thrillah in Manila". He also found time in 1977 to star in The Greatest, a film based on his 1975 autobiography. Despite Ali's continuing success, his doctor, Ferdie Pacheco, began noticing some symptoms of permanent damage caused by Ali's many fights. The boxer started losing badly to younger, unknown fighters, one of whom almost knocked him out. He lost to Leon Spinks in February 1978 in a split decision. Ali later recovered his title, but many of his fans sensed that Ali's long reign in the ring was soon to end. In an October 1980 fight against Larry Holmes, he lost the championship for the final time. After his retirement in December 1981, Ali plunged himself into his second love—community service. He was appointed a special envoy by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 to urge African nations to boycott the Olympic Games in Moscow, and he served on the Peace Corps advisory board. He donated huge sums of his considerable fortune to many charitable causes that benefited young people, including UNICEF. In the early 1980s, Ali founded the World Organization for Rights, Liberty, and Dignity, which he called "my own United Nations." In 1984, Ali was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and although the former fighter still travels around the world to support his favorite causes, he finds it increasingly difficult to speak and to get about unassisted. At the 1996 Olympics, Ali again enjoyed the international spotlight as one of the openers of the games. His hands shaking, Ali held one of the two torches that lit the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta, Georgia as the huge stadium crowd cheered.